System 1552, York Sector, United Commonwealth of Colonies
Smoke filled the air and leaked through the crack in the Lancelot’s skipper’s face-shield. The quarter-centimeter plate of polyplast was supposed to keep this type of thing from happening, but getting pitched face first into the edge of the holo-tank console wasn’t something the original designers expected. They envisioned spacers and officers staying strapped into their chairs and doing battle with the enemy from a seated position. No one had told those geniuses things didn’t always play out that way, or people had, and the powers that be had ignored them.
Either way, it didn’t matter now as the skipper hacked away as the acrid air filled his lungs. “Get me a new helmet!” He spit out a wad of dark phlegm that was tinged red. He’d be surprised if he only had a concussion. “Damage report!”
Lancelot was still shuddering from the close range, multiple antimatter missile impacts. Double-digit megatons of force had smashed against the shield and electrostatic-infused nanite armor of the battleship. Modern anti-ship missiles had come a long way over the past century, and the most basic form was a concentrated and directed explosion of an antimatter warhead. Instead of the missile just exploding and expending all its energy in a three hundred and sixty degree free-for-all, engineers had been able to design a system where nearly the full force of the blast funneled into a cone roughly twenty degrees wide. It was the best way to bring the most destruction on target since direct missile-to-ship impacts were rare due to the velocities and evasion protocols built into a modern warship.
Basic physics demanded something had to give. As big as they were, Lancelot and Galahad weren’t immovable objects.
“Port shield was overloaded, but the armor held at seventy-five percent. We’ve got fires on alpha, bravo, and delta decks, sections twelve thru fifteen. It looks like some circuitry overheated and compensators failed. Damage Control Teams Seven, Nine, and Eighteen are taking care of it now.” The XO, a hearty looking Commander, whose face-shield was still intact, replied over the holo from the CIC.
A CO and XO were never in the same place. The XO needed to take command if the CO died, so they were never both on the bridge during a battle.
“Are we rolled?”
“Roger, Sir. Starboard side is now facing the enemy.”
It was a common tactic to keep warships in the fight longer. As the port shield deflectors recycled, as long as the generators weren’t blown to shit, it was better to put the undamaged starboard shields and armor between the crew of Lancelot and the storm of Blockie missiles.
“Good, get the tank back up or we’re flying blind.” As the commander of the impromptu task force it wasn’t healthy to not have eyes and ears on the battle.
“Rebooting now, Sir.” The communications OIC said just as the holo-tank flickered and came back to life, along with the lighting for the entire bridge.
What it showed was a bit of a mess. The Lancelot’s bridge was covered in fire-suppressant foam to kill the small fires that had erupted from several of the consoles when they took the hits. Ideally, the countermissiles and point defense lasers would have destroyed the enemy missiles farther than a kilometer from the ship, but sometimes shit happened.
“Your helmet, Sir.” A marine sentry stomped onto the bridge in armor and handed the skipper a fresh one.
“Thank you.” The three-striped captain nodded to the private first class with respect, because at the moment they were both knee deep in it.
The universe didn’t care if you were an O-4 or E-3 when it blew up your shit. Everyone was just the same bits of organic matter at that point.
“Weapons status?” The skipper turned back to do his job and slid on his new helmet so the crew of the Lancelot didn’t turn into finely dispersed stardust.
“Tubes six through eighteen have crumbled. They got caught with the launch doors open and the concentrated blast wave wrecked them. Cannons two, three, and four are down too. This is all on top of the existing damage.”
<That isn’t good.>
Lancelot and her task force had been slugging it out with the superior Blockie force for almost ninety minutes now. The gunboat they’d sent for help was well on its way to New Lancashire, but it would be almost a full day before the tiny ship returned with reinforcements.
All that meant was it was up to what was already in the system to defend it against the Blockies.
<We can’t lose the system.> The skipper kept repeating it to himself like a mantra.
With the holo-tank back up the captain got a good look at the tactical plot STRATNET was projecting, and it was good to see things hadn’t changed that much. They hadn’t gone from bad to worse yet.
At the onset of the battle, the battleships CWS Lancelot and Galahad, the cruisers CWS Fortitude and Liberty, and the destroyers CWS Nightingale and Barton had formed a rough wall of battle to face the three incoming Blockie battleships and two destroyers.
A wall was the primary defensive formation of space navies. It spaced the warships a few hundred kilometers apart, and interlocked their defensive systems to provide maximum coverage for everyone. That was key in a weak wall like the one they had now. Destroyers like Barton and Nightingale needed all the protection they could get.
And even then it hadn’t been enough.
The holo-tank showed the lifeless corpse of DD 547 Barton as a lightly shaded blue icon spiraling nose over ass almost thirty thousand kilometers behind the rest of the wall. They couldn’t pick it up on advanced optics but the destroyer had been spewing air, fluids, and humans into the void when a Blockie missile struck a killing blow.
Nightingale wasn’t doing to much better. Barton’s sister ship was still in the fight, but her acceleration had been falling steadily for the past ten minutes, and soon the wall would have to leave her behind or risk losing the battle for position.
Currently, the Blockie and Commonwealth task forces were circling each other like sharks getting closer and closer for the kill. Each time they got closer and closer to energy cannon range, and after that…a boarding action.
Lancelot’s skipper had been in his fair share of battles. He’d been in one-on-one fights, and massive fleet-sized actions with dozens of battleships going at it. Despite everything he’d been through, this type of battle was the most dangerous. The forces facing each other weren’t small enough that one was likely to destroy the other before they got to boarding range. They also weren’t big enough that it was inevitable they would make it to boarding range. In those instances, the commander of one force or the other would likely disengage before that happened. No one liked to get close enough for the enemy to shoot pods into each other filled with marines. Those battles never ended well for anyone.
The fight for system 1552 was a straight up mauling. Both sides wanted the system and it looked like they take it all the way to do it, including boarding actions; and with a battleship-sized advantage the Blockies would probably win it.
<Probably.> The captain watched as a new flight of red v-shaped icons detached from the Blockie wall and sped across the holo-tank.
“Incoming salvo, five hundred and twenty-six contacts, ETA ninety-three seconds, ” the tactical OIC announced.
It was the same deal as before. The Blockie battleships were handling all the offensive fire, and only allowing their destroyers to help with defense while screening them pretty effectively. The skipper’s guess was that they were probably stuffed with ground pounders for the inevitable boarding action, or planetary landing, and they’d be preserved until the last minute.
In the meantime, the entire Commonwealth force had to use all its firepower to even come close to matching the Blockies’ throwing weight, and even then they were coming up short.
“Echo salvo, entering their engagement envelope.” The tactical OIC stated as the weapons departments on the five remaining Commonwealth ships went to work as their own missiles closed on the Blockies.
Currently, the Blockie task force was just a little over a million kilometers away, which was well inside the eight million kilometer range of the battleship’s missiles, and the cruisers and destroyers’ smaller range of five million kilometers. They’d fired all their functional tubes, four hundred and fifty-nine missiles, at the enemy. Compared to a ship, a missile’s acceleration was ridiculously fast, and it would cover the distance in about a minute. And now that the missiles were starting their final burn the weapons departments went to work.
They tried to defeat the enemy warships electronic warfare countermeasures, countermissiles, and point defense lasers while lining up the best shots. Most of the missiles were the same as the ones that had hammered Lancelot, but some were different.
At Lancelot’s weapons OIC’s command, dozens of EW missiles activated and made their smaller salvo seem much larger than a paltry four hundred and fifty-nine missiles. Then, some missiles went into programmed evasive patterns to try and thread through the incoming countermissiles, while some barreled straight ahead and poured on the acceleration.
Red countermissiles sprang out to meet the Lancelot’s missile salvo at a hundred thousand kilometers. It was like two angry, color-codded hives of pissed off insects trying to kill each other in high definition. Explosion icons started to dot the space between the circling task forces as countermeasures detonated. A lot of them killed the Commonwealth missiles, but some missed, and at the close distance between the warring ships there was only time for one countermissile launch.
About half of the Commonwealth’s salvo made it through the countermissile clash, but as they got closer the Blockie electronic warfare countermeasures started to take effect.
Missiles were blinded and thrown off course, some were jammed and auto shut down to coast ballistically into space, until they reacquired STRATNET and either resumed their attack or detonated. Some missiles honed in on shadow targets created by EW decoys, and would end up emptying their explosive payload into empty space.
When it came down to it another third of the missiles were distracted enough to fail to enter the final zone. Once inside this zone, filled with point defense lasers and railguns, they dipped, dived, juked, and dodged on random courses to get into position to detonate. All while avoiding the small laser blasts and chunks of duro-steel that would either outright destroy them or fry their circuits enough that they became useless hunks of junk.
It was times like these when the skipper hated the effectiveness of Blockie point defense, because when the salvo finally hit there were only a few dozen that made it. But on the bright side, they were all targeting a single battleship.
But battleships were designed to take those hits. Most of those few dozen detonations were glancing blows that were easily shrugged off. A few hit better, but that’s what the shields, armor, and meters-thick hull were for. But when push came to shove, all it took was one.
“YES!” The tactical OIC screamed out loud.
The skipper kept his composure better, but couldn’t hold back the smile. Blockie Three, the extra battleship who’d made their life a living hell, looked like it was dead in the water. Their hull wasn’t rotating in a normal, defensive way, and it looked like they were going into an uncontrolled spin. They were still too far away for even the most advanced optics, but it was clear from the sensors that they’d hit something important.
<We’ve got something close to force parity now.> The skipper felt a glimmer of hope in his gut.
It could have been an ulcer, but he was optimistic.
“Incoming salvo, ETA thrity seconds!”
“Armed and in the tubes. Plotting solutions.” The weapons OIC responded.
Now it was the Blockies’ turn to return the favor.
“Has their spread changed?” The holo-tank zoomed in to show the outlay of the missiles and their projected course toward the Commonwealth task force.
“Negative, sir.” They’re still putting enough pressure on us and Galahad to keep our gloves up, while hoping to overwhelm the smaller units.
“That’s going to change next salvo.”
The skipper felt the vibrations through the duro-steel deck of hundreds of countermissiles firing at the incoming salvo. For the second time in as many minutes blue and red raced toward each other and destruction, but that was the norm of space warfare. You went back and forth; offense, defense, offense, defense, sometimes for hours or days depending on the size of the forces going at it. In larger engagements, crew fatigue was just as much of a danger as incoming missiles, because a silicone brain could be tricked by 1’s and 0’s. A human mind wasn’t fooled so easily.
“Intercept in three…two…one…” the tank exploded with icons as missiles and countermissiles collided and filled the space around them with explosive force. “Intercept moderately effective. Two hundred and three still inbound.”
The skipper glanced at the tank quickly to see their formation. Nightingale was barely screened by Galahad, and that made both cruisers more vulnerable. “Adjust course, negative two degrees. Dedicate five percent more defensive fire to covering this zone here.” He highlighted the holo-tank by touch.
Based on damage reports and computer simulations, that was where Fortitude was most vulnerable.
“EW going active.” The tactical OIC stated, and the Blockie missiles started to go haywire. The Blockies might have really good point defense, but the Commonwealth was second to none in EW tech. If the missiles couldn’t find you then you didn’t have to shoot them down. They’d get rid of themselves.
“Eighty-eight still inbound. Rail guns and point defense going hot in three…two…one…” The tank lit up again with explosions as incoming ordinance was swatted from space.
A few seconds later the first missiles to make it through exploded. Lancelot only shook lightly as the majority of the remaining missiles expended themselves against other targets.
<Good call.> The captain congratulated himself on the last minute course correction.
The tank updated constantly as explosions continued all around the battleship. The data showed that Fortitude was targeted with ten percent more missiles than before. The two-degree course correction probably saved the cruiser.
“Fortitude Actual, Lancelot Actual, cut speed and fall back so we can…”
The transmission was interrupted as a missile exploded and unleased its full force on the Lancelot. The impact wasn’t crippling, but it was at just the right angle at just the right moment.
The blast wave from the missile hit an already crumbling exit port of missile launcher one hundred seven. It overrode the weakened shields, smashed through the already broken small section of armor, and caused a chain reaction of explosions that rocked the ship. The force of the added explosions smashed their way deep into the warship’s core. The pure kinetic energy and destructive fire destroyed the compensators and turned everyone on the bridge to paste. Anything that was left of the captain and the entire bridge crew was consumed by fire. Their feeble CMU vacsuits were no match for the unlucky turn of events.
Immediately, all vital systems were automatically rerouted to the CIC where the XO took over to continue the fight.
Commander Sarah Wythe
CWS Fortitude System 1552, York Sector, United Commonwealth of Colonies
<That saved our ass.> Sarah thought as Lancelot’s last second maneuver screened the smaller cruiser from multiple missiles that could have badly damaged her.
“Fortitude Actual, Lancelot Actual, cut speed and fall back so we can…”
“Lancelot, say again we lost you…Lancelot Actual…?”
“Lancelot Actual is gone,” a new, stressed voice announced over TACCOM. “XO has taken charge and task force command has passed to Galahad Actual. Orders are to continue mission. Lancelot, out.”
The link went dead and she had to shake herself for a second. She didn’t know and hadn’t even met the battleship’s skipper, but he’d been doing a hell of a job fighting off a stronger force with what he had.
<No time for that.> This might be her first cruiser command, but it wasn’t her first command. The time for mourning would come later.
It was just the nature of modern naval warfare. You could do everything right, make all the right moves, have everything working at one hundred percent, and you could still be blotted from existence. That was something a naval officer or a spacer needed to come to terms with quick, or find a different occupation.
The death of Lancelot’s captain and bridge crew had repercussions for Fortitude. Even though the systems transfer was immediately, there was still a fraction of a second where CIC’s human and silicone brains had to catch up.
The missile detonated about ten kilometers off Fortitude’s port bow. The angle wasn’t great, but that didn’t stop the enemy missile’s software from doing everything it could to kill the cruiser. Unlike a lot of the ordinance being thrown around, this missile wasn’t an antimatter warhead. It was a shotgun missile, a missile designed to get close and unleash a hail of duro-steel projectiles at ridiculous velocities into the hull of a ship. It was known more affectionately as a “can opener”.
The rounds, basically railgun rounds packed into a missile and fired at twenty times the speed of sound, raked the side of Fortitude. The cruiser wailed as metal met nanite armor and alarm bells started to ring. The ES armor held for the most part, stopping the impacts, or deflecting them back off into space. But a few got through and punched into the hull. The hull stopped most of those that got through, but a few rounds made it through the three and a half meter thick duro-steel and into the interior.
“Hull breech, deck Charlie, exterior only, decompression in cabin Charlie-Two-Two-One.” A quick check of the cabin’s use and data before the impact showed that it was uninhabited. “No casualties, Damage Control Team Three is moving to patch the hole.”
Sarah knew Fortitude got lucky. A slightly better angle and she would have taken the full burst of the can opener on the chin, and then they would have been filling a lot of body bags, maybe even her own.
Sarah looked just in time to see the wounded and floundering destroyer explode in a ball of superheated plasma.
“Damnit!” She lost her composure for a second and slammed her suited fist against the holo-tank. The loss of those twenty missiles, both offensively and defensively would be missed now that they had something approaching force parity with the Blockies. Not to mention the crew of eighty spacers.
“Galahad Acutal, Fortitude Actual, adjusting position to cover…” Sarah started.
“Commonwealth Task Force, this is HMS Horatio Nelson of the Star Kingdom of Windsor. You look like you could use a hand.” The message didn’t come in over TACCOM but as a general communications hail from a warship that had suddenly appeared on their sensors two million kilometers to starboard on an elliptical bearing.
<Where the hell did they come from?> That was well within their one light minute bubble and nobody had said anything about their approach.
The voice immediately made her want to roll her eyes. It was delivered in a casual drawl she’d heard way too many times among the blue-blooded elite of London. If anything, it was the last thing she expected to hear all the way out here. But then she remembered Ben’s class on the Star Kingdom, and the initial hopefulness she’d felt at seeing a battleship-sized, presumed friendly ship vanished.
“HMS Horatio Nelson, this is Commonwealth task force commander. State your intentions, and be aware this is an active shooting incident.”
“I just did, old chap, and I can read a sensor screen. I’m only wondering if you need a hand dealing with this rabble.”
“The rabble isn’t so easily dealt with.” Galahad’s skipper replied as another wave of missiles detonated around the Blockie task force with much less effect than the previous salvo.
“Between your remaining ships and my dreadnaught I think we can make do.” The other ship’s Captain replied with a confidence that Sarah found unsettling.
“Your assistance would be appreciated Horatio Nelson, but take any offensive action against my task force and you’ll be going down with us.”
“Understood. Where do you want us?”
“Set new course to zero-five-zero, burn hard and try to get a shot down their throats. If the Blockie over there has any sense he’ll break off now that we have the advantage.”
“Roger that, setting new course to zero-five-zero at full burn.” The external line went dead.
“Fortitude, Liberty, keep an eye on the new guy. If he tries to stab us in the back I want you to slash his hamstring.”
“Roger that, Sir.”
Sarah now had two fronts to watch, and either one could kill her and her ship.