Commander Kim Jun looked at the carrier TSS Nobunaga preparing for transit. More like a sun barge than a warship as she slowly was surrounded by the ships she was to escort through the gate. For the next few hours she would be helpless until she had made the transit and her surrounding ships had made enough distance for her to maneuver again.
He had already sent TSS Goethe ahead into transit. She was carrying a surprise for Commodore McAdams. Exactly what would be disclosed after Nobunaga had made it to Otherworld space.
Incoming was a different problem. New Sweden, all city ships of it, had been retardating the last months and were soon in position to orbit close to Gatekeeper. He guessed it made sense setting up shop by the gate. Traffic through the gate was to increase a hundredfold within the next few years.
“Commander, this is funny.”
I don't need funny right now. From the corner of his way he saw TSS Nobunaga slowly lumbering towards the gate. “What is it?”
“It's Royal Crown Valhall, sir.”
Kim looked at the incoming data for the city ship. There were strange energy emissions. What are they doing?
“Launch! We have multiple launches!”
A swarm of fighter escorts swarmed from hangar bays just opened.
“Multiple launches! Repeat, multiple launches!”
From greater range Royal Crown Gothenburg and Royal Capital Stockholm started spewing out fighter escorts and light bombers. The were soon followed by launches from all city ships.
“Battle stations!” What the bloody hell is going on? I could use some help now! But TSS Nobunaga was unable to adjust her vectors. She would fall towards and into the gate no matter what. Even launching her own fighters now would be a fatal risk to the ships surrounding her.
“Good morning Commande Jun,” a voice said over the open channel. “This is Her Majesty's Admiral Anders Christiansson speaking.”
Over the open channel. You've just shouted your greeting all over the solar system!
“Commander Jun here. What is the meaning of this?”
“I'm just making certain that we all follow Federation law, albeit its jurisdiction here is a bit unclear. We won't break any laws and it's imperative that this is known to everyone.”
What are you up to?
“Henceforth my orders will go unencrypted over this channel. Are we clear?”
Orders? Kim scratched his head in avery unmilitary way. “Clear,” he said automatically. Orders?
“Commander?” That was Kim's second in command from a few metres away. Those aren't light bombers. They're tugs.”
“Excellent!” Admiral Christiansson said. “All units, carthesian, three six zero.”
“Carthesian, three six zero, confirmed,” several voices responded over the open channel.”
No, you're not!
“Royal Crown Valhall, burn! Full burn! Vector zero, zero, three five eight. Royal Capital Stockholm, burn! Point nine burn! Vector zero, one, three five nine. New Norrland, burn! Point eight seven burn! Vector one, zero, two!”
And it continued.
Kim was at a loss for what to do. This was Gatekeeper, not a warship. He made a decision. “You are immediately to cease acceleration!”
“Commander Jun, as I clearly stated earlier, we are not, repeat not in violation of any federation laws.”
“Cease acceleration or face the consequences!”
“I will not, nay cannot, oblige you,” Admiral Christiansson responded.”
Commande Jun turned to his second in command. “All gunnery stations, target Royal Crown Valhall. Fire at will!”
“Commader! That's an illegal order!”
With some luck the comment from his second in command hadn't carried over the open channel. Luck, I ran out of luck long ago.
“Ship breaker station, stand down! That is an illegal order.” Lieutenant Pierre Santana stared at his men.
“But her gun ports are open!”
“That's a city ship. She only has defensive weapons. It's a civilian target and we will not fire on it.” Pirates did, and Pierre didn't intend to finish his career as a pirate.
“But it's still weaponry!”
“It's a damned hospital with over a hundred thousand civilians living on it. Families. Stand down! That's a direct order.”
That sobered them up a bit. Well, there were still valid targets. “Those fighters,” Pierre pointed at the display showing close to one hundred falcon class fighters arcing far above any sound interception plane, “are a military target though. Let's greet them with some fireworks. Interceptor missiles, fire!”
In the end only two of Gatekeeper's eight gunnery stations obeyed Commander Jun's orders. Less than a dozen ship breaker missiles streaked towards Royal Crown Valhall. Another two headed for New Halland.
“Hailstorm, hailstorm, hailstorm!”
That report was to be expected. Royal Crown Valhall had responded in the only way possible and fired canisters with magnetic pellets. Two million shards of iron met the incoming missiles. Commander Jun could only watch impotently as his missiles were cut down.
He ordered his sensors down before the residue of the defensive ordnance hit Gatekeeper. Thirty seconds later Gatekeeper was blasted by iron shards. Any open sensors would have risked taking damage.
“Launch fighters and bombers!” Gatekeeper had enough of those to slaughter the incoming falcons.
He watched Gatekeeper's hangar bays open, and then the first of his ships were away.
“Railgun firing! Multiple railguns firing!” he heard from sensor's command.
Are you morons? Kinetic missiles against fighters? You'll hit one once in a blue moon.
“Disregard that. They can't do anything with those,” he ordered.
Soon a full dozen stingray class fighters were circling Gatekeeper, and more were launched.
Then his monitors lit up like a Christmas tree. New Halland had taken a direct hit, and Gatekeeper's shipbreakers weren't armed with chemical payloads. A four megaton thermonuclear detonation ripped the city ship in half, instantly killing all two hundred thousand of its inhabitants.
Mother of God! That should teach them to obey my orders in the future!
“Hailstorm, hailstorm, hailstorm!”
All monitors went down at once. Gatekeeper screeched in protest as half a million pellets showered over her.
What just happened?
“Commander, those weren't kinetic missiles. Shielded canisters. Hailstorm launched at point blank range.”
He had lost almost thirty percent of his sensors. Every single fighter deployed hung dead in space. Most of them were leaking oxygen, but for their pilots that mattered little. The small ships had been riddled by pellets travelling at over sixty thousand clicks an hour. There was nothing left inside worth salvaging.
“Deploy more fighters, sir?”
Royal Crown Valhall accelerated past them towards the gate. Next in line was Royal Capital Stockholm. She followed a bit slower.
“Railgun firing! Staggered firing!”
Commander Jun gave the monitors a tired stare. Where Valhall had blasted away what amounted to an old style broadside Stockholm fired her guns one at a time, every two seconds.
“Hailstorm, hailstorm, hailstorm!”
“Hailstorm, hailstorm, hailstorm!”
“Retract sensors!” he ordered. There was nothing more he could do. Every two seconds Gatekeeper was showered by fifty thousand pellets. There was no chance his sensors could take that kind of abuse.
That should be impossible. They had no external sensors out.
“Tightbeam, high output. Put it through?”
“This is the captain of RMS Red News speaking. I'm Howard Woo, by the way. Whom am I speaking to?”
Red News. The bastards at New Sweden had invited Red News.
“Commander Jun here,” Kim answered. All air had gone out of him.
“Splendid! Red News is always looking for, well, news. And you make such splendid news! I never expected to see a federation military installation fire ship breakers against a city ship. Rest assured that everyone in the solar system is watching this in rapt attention.”
“What, you're broadcasting live?”
“Of course! Fifteen billion in your audience, and the worst war crime in five hundred years live on holo. Fantastic news!”
Commande Jun groaned. He had opened fire on the largest hospital installation in the known universe and slaughtered every civilian in another city ship.
“Ship breaker missiles open fire! I want RMS Red News gone!”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Commander! Really! Ordering unprovoked military action against a second sovereign state in less than an hour. Such a busy man you are.”
Around him all his men had made themselves scarce.
"... and enclosed are your orders together with your new salary statement."
Commodore McAdams blinked. "New salary statement?"
"Yes, did I forget to tell you?" The holo representation of Captain Ibraim Ahmad smiled impishly. "Yes, I think I did. The powers that be deemed it appropriate you get your new rank to better appreciate these interesting times. Congratulations Rear Admiral Vivian McAdams!"
She had hoped. Active duty for seventeen years straight with barely a holiday worth remembering. "Please relay my thanks to Space Command." Flag rank. A real ships command again. Not the cramped quarters of a corvette and most importantly, no longer being stuck on Orbit One. A glorified governorship better suited for a civilian. She could go see places again.
She biosigned acceptance of her orders, answered the audio challenge and had Commander Anisa Mumbata countersign for witnessing. Anisa smiled.
"Something wrong Vivian?"
"I'm sorry. Admiral, I forgot." Anisa paled as much as her African heritage allowed.
"Not you. Not your fault. The bastards made Orbit One a flagship. A stationary flag?"
"Oh, sorry Admiral. I know you wanted a ship."
Vivian turned to the commander. "As I said, not your fault, and we've been on a first name basis for two years now, so don't you start admiraling me now!"
Relief spread over Anisa's face.
Been running a civilian command in uniform for fifteen years, and I'll be damned if I'm going to start shouting orders now. Especially when they pulled this kind of prank on me!
"Comm... Admiral, signal from TSS Goethe," Lieutenant Mendoza said from his station.
"Raise cube. Let's see what Captain Ahmad has in store for me. Gloating I suppose." Vivian didn't care for his refusal to address her by name, but he was fresh out of the academy.
"No holo, Admiral. Data only. It's relayed from Gatekeeper. A transit."
Vivian glanced at the lieutenant. It was unfair, but life was unfair. "Let us see who comes for dinner, shall we?"
Seconds passed, fifty of them. Gatekeeper was at its closest, but close was relative in space, even in this space.
"Admiral, it's the TSS Nobunaga."
"Nobunaga? Carrier class Nobunaga?"
"Affirmed. She... Admiral?" Mendoza looked as if struck.
"Spit it out!"
"She's on escort duty, Admiral."
"Escort duty? What in all glowing hells could convince Space Command to assign a carrier to escort duty?"
"I don't... Admiral, multiple transits. I read TMS Friends in need, TMS Hamburg and RMS Red News, repeat RMS Red News."
"Oh hell. Wallman, if you get your sorry ass up here I'll kick you back planet side. Interesting times, you bastard!" Newscasters! It was bound to happen, but she had hoped to be safely away on a new command long before that.
"I read TMS Steelshark, ..."
And that's about the only ship I expected at this time!
"... HMS Hugin, HMS Munin ..."
"HMS! They're not even Federation!"
"Affirmed. New Sweden. Those are Her Majesty's... My God!"
Vivian didn't respond. No one did. The signal didn't belong to anything as small as a ship, not even a lumbering sun barge. They stared in disbelief as Royal Crown Valhall was tugged through transit. After that, like clockwork, thirty minutes between transits the madness continued. Royal Capital Stockholm, New Norrland, New Blekinge, Royal Crown Göteborg. And through they came, twenty six cities each with a population from fifty thousand to a quarter of a million, each dwarfing the tugs towing it as well as the swarm of Her Majesty's Ships circling the migration like angry wasps.