Reconnaissance went in first. RC-12s were large for carrier launched craft. They carried an array of both active and passive scanners as well as jamming and ECM systems. Launching from the forward portal of one of the heavy carrier’s landing bays, the full squadron of twenty-five RCs quickly fanned out into the target system.
The fleet of warships had dropped out of ex-space with a burst of energy that split the blackness of space. Three of the ships were of the same design. Huge war machines with large triangular forward sections, attached to bodies that supported twin landing-bays and powerful propulsion sections in the rear. A large, forward swept, wing ran across the top of the fuselage, at the midpoint, securing the landing-bays on either side of the ships. The bays were also connected to the rear propulsion section, and then trailed back behind the fuselage.
The taskforce had deployed from ex-space just outside the star system’s one hour jump-limit. At a little under six-hundred and seventy million miles from the star, the jump-limit was the point where light particle density was thin enough so inter-phase and jump drives could be operated safely. It was also where the Krix had set a line of detection drones.
Such a large transition was not missed, it wasn‘t meant to be. A thousand fighter craft launched from the system’s second planet, Aultra, assembled and started out after the invaders. Hundreds more ships rose from planetary bases and began assembling for a second wave. The wall of defensive fighters did not deter the attacking fleet. They pressed on despite being heavily outnumbered.
The taskforce consisted of the heavy carriers, GAF Ittala, Rhyolite, and Oronos. In addition were the standard carriers GAF Cauldare and USS Lexington. For fire support there were the battleships USS Massachusetts, Nevada, and two more Alliance heavy cruisers. A dozen destroyers of varying types made up the screening element.
Normally fleets played a deadly game of hide and seek during battles; with the loser being destroyed. ECM dampening fields, wide field jamming, throwing false images, even diversion jamming fields were used to hide ships.
None of that was used as the taskforce raced towards the drones at one eighth the speed of light, with their engines blazing to decelerate and their active scanners online. Only at the last moment did the big guns of the battleships open up to blast the probes in their range.
After two hours the taskforce had penetrated over one-hundred sixty-seven million miles into the system. Their reconnaissance ships were well ahead of them and tracking the approaching wall of defending fighters. Some of the RC-12s would shadow them and relay course and heading information to the taskforce, while the rest would continue into the system looking for hidden threats.
The taskforce suddenly swung about and headed back the way it came, toward the jump-limit. The Krix fighters closed on them at twice their speed.
One ship hesitated on the maneuver. This left it well behind the others. It was much smaller than the giant carriers and supported four extensions on the rear of its slim body. Forming an X, the outer tips of the extensions glowed with a steady buildup of power as its crew of mostly civilian technicians prepared for their dangerous task.
“Excalibur to Op’ Com’. First stage complete.”
“Copy Excalibur. Proceed with stage two,” was the reply from the flagship, Ittala.
The Excalibur’s commander, Colonel Marcone of Lot, turned to the gray haired civilian standing over his shoulder. “We’re clear to proceed, Mister Cromwell.”
Professor Cromwell stood with his arms folded and an annoyed look on his face. He stepped from the raised platform without saying a word and moved from the command station to a nearby section, which was dedicated to the control of his invention. Complaining for more space in the Centralized Operations Center had been in vain. Even going over the head of that arrogant colonel hadn’t helped. Space in the COC of any ship was at a premium, especially a small modified cruiser.
In the left rear corner of the cramped chamber, Cromwell was hovering over his technicians, double checking their readouts, when a young officer reported, “Sir, the second stage exchange pump in pillion three is showing an overload. Also, conduits three, seven, and fifteen are showing heat warnings.”
Cromwell leaned over the man to check the computer for himself. “Slow down the exchange rate,” he ordered firmly
“But that will cause us to store the buildup longer in the discharge banks.”
“I’m aware of that, Lieutenant,” Cromwell said condescendingly. It was his first actual combat test of his prototype. With the urgency of development, there hadn’t been many field tests either. Quickly calculating the delay his decision would cause, he informed Colonel Marcone of the change. This delay meant the entire time frame would have to be adjusted. A thousand Krix fighters would be allowed to get even closer. The fleet commander didn’t relay this to the rest of the ships. He simply told them to increase speed and hold on defensive procedures.
On the heavy carrier Oronos, the continuing order to hold fire was not welcome, especially by the commanding officer, Vice-General Yanex of Iss. Having been in on the development of the new weapon, he knew how finicky it could be. Yanex felt that its practical application had been premature but agreed that further delay could be devastating; time was running out.
The order to hold fire was part of the plan of attack. It had been repeated prior to the fleet dropping out of ex-space. Hearing it again only irritated Yanex. The stone faced man visibly cringed when the Colonel seated at his right relayed it.
As people hastened at their work in the Oronos’ dimly lit COC, voices blended together into a murmur. With a sunken main floor, it was far more expansive than that of Excalibur. Officers who controlled, or represented, important functions of the ship occupied workstations that ringed both levels. Forward steps dropped down to the Propulsion and Power Center, where helm control and operation of the ship’s massive power grid took place.
In the center of the main floor, surrounded by all that activity, was the command station. On the raised platform there was a large console with three seats and a desk to the rear. Vice-General Yanex sat in the center with his second in command, the Command Operations Officer, Colonel Tellious at his side.
As the commanding officer, the Vice-General was officially addressed as Commander. It was a title given to any officer that was in charge of a ship or unit. Any officer, or even enlisted personnel, could hold the title regardless of rank. It helped prevent confusion in a crisis where a commanding officer might be killed and their successor had stepped up to take their place. Rather than look to see who was in-charge, someone could simply call for the commander and get whoever it was.
Yanex didn’t like having to just sit there while the enemy closed in with vastly superior numbers. If something went wrong, he wouldn’t have time to launch all of his own interceptors. The plan was if the new weapon failed they would turn tail and run for the jump-limit. With their more advanced drive systems, the human warships could out run and out distance the enemy fighters. However, they would be unable to recover any fighters they had launched. Recovery operations would take even longer on the Oronos due to a landing-bay being shut down for repairs after the last battle. Construction personnel doing repairs almost equaled the skeleton crew she carried.
Orders kept Yanex from taking action; however he would be ready when the time came.
“Range?” Yanex called out in his deep voice. He wore a tiny headset, which broadcast his orders throughout the COC.
Off to his right a young female lieutenant responded, “Twenty-four hundred LI (about twenty-five million miles) and closing, sir.”
“They’re holding a nice tight formation,” added Colonel Tellious.
Yanex leaned forward to study the information on a monitor mounted into the console in front of him.
“Arm and deploy the mains,” he said to Tellious without turning his head. Tellious passed the order to the Commander of Weapons Tactics, Major Hellor.
Hellor activated a bank of eight switches on his control panel. Each switch had two buttons below them. He hit the first row of lighted buttons, but reluctantly held off the next. The second row enabled the computer which fired the batteries.
On the main forward hull of the ship and wing tips, heavy blast doors split open and slid apart. Giant cannons rose from their protective bunkers. The rear power cells of each weapon glowed while they swung to the rear and trained on the approaching threat. Servomotors made fine adjustments as the computers assigned targets according to level of threat.
Hellor turned to the station behind him to meet the eyes of a woman with short red hair. She shared his uneasiness as she spoke into her microphone. “In excess of eight-hundred targets, at twenty-one hundred and closing.”
The Oronos was a combination battleship and aircraft carrier. The two huge bays hanging off the sides were for recovering ships and conducting secondary flight operations. Rapid deployment of interceptors was accomplished through a series of individual launch tubes. Each one was a de-pressurizing chamber and catapult for a single fighter. Two sets of twenty-five tubes lined the forward edge of the wing, which crossed the upper body of the ship. A full squadron of fifty interceptors could be launched simultaneously while a second squadron was readied. Each of the short tubes had a track that led back through a heavy bulkhead into a large bay where a sleek twin-engine fighter sat on a raised platform. The fighters sat in a uniform row, ready for action.
Aultrian squadrons were made up of fifty pilots broken into five flights of ten. With single pilot interceptors there were fifty ships. In larger two crewmen ships, like strikecraft or reconnaissance ships, there were twenty-five ships.
The interceptors were mostly engines with small forward stabilizing wings on the nose and short swept back main wings off the engines. Retracted along the fuselage for space flight, the wings could be extended for atmosphere flying. Cannons were mounted in pods on the lower fuselage and a pair of angled out tails jutted up from above the engines.
Powered up and ready, the fighters sat as some pilots waited in their open cockpits for the overdue launch order. Others mulled about their ships or gathered in small groups. All the checks and inspections had been completed. Preflight checklists and briefings were out of the way. There was only the waiting and the tension. Once the launch order came down the long chamber would burst into activity as the first set of fighters moved into the tubes and a second squadron was brought into position. But for now there was only the waiting.
The homecoming was a bittersweet occasion for the crew of mostly Aultrians, or people from its former colonies. Some were from the newly annexed planet Earth, while the rest were an assortment of humans and aliens from nations that had been overrun by the Krix. Former enemies had banded together in an alliance to fight the invaders. In the case of Earth, the war had forced the uniting of people that had been separated for over four thousand years. Even a lizard like Gorrick wore the uniform of the Tyramma, the elite Aultrian fighter pilot corps. Once a mighty force, only a handful remained as they made their desperate last stand.
The offensive was an unexpected and welcome move for the battle weary souls. The irony of the moment was best reflected in an offhand remark made by a woman to her fellow pilots as they sat in a circle, between two fighters, playing an endless game of cards.
“Welcome home,” she said in a dry tone.
“Maybe we’ll get to visit the old neighborhood,” remarked a man sitting to her right, a major with a long white ponytail named Marcus of Ron.
“You might not want to, I hear a bad element’s moved in,” said Major William Sands. The Aultrians missed the true meaning of the statement, made by a black man from Earth. Prejudice still survived on the formerly isolated world.
“Yeah,” said Bogan, a husky second lieutenant, “well it’s high time we did something about that.”
“I wouldn’t count on that, Bogan,” said Major Talya of Ott, a blond woman seated on the other side of the circle.
Bogan’s frustration was showing through. “Nothing’s gonna happen if we don’t get off this deck.”
“Relax,” said the first woman, a captain with short dark hair, “they want to play with their new toy first.”
“What’s that thing supposed to do anyway?” asked Talya as she dealt out cards.
“It’s gonna make a big boom,” answered Sands, picking up his cards, “make all the bad guys go by-by.”
“Wouldn’t that be just ducky,” quipped Captain Zeke.
“I just can’t stand sittin’ here,” grumbled Bogan, “not knowing what’s goin’ on.”
“Oh, you wanna know what’s going on?” the dark haired woman said in her same dry tone. “Why didn’t you say so?”
She looked over and called to a small girl who was leaning on the wing of a nearby ship, “Leezy, what’s going on?”
This fresh young pilot wore a headset and was listening to the COC communication channel as she tried to gather enough courage to approach the group of senior Tyramma. New and inexperienced pilots were usually the first to be lost, the very reason that long timers tended not to get attached to them. She knew that her best chance for survival was to learn from those people, be accepted by them. Suddenly one of them spoke to her.
Lazell of Niss stood upright, she almost came to attention. Her high pitched, nasally voice cracked as she stumbled over her response. “Hostiles at two-thousand LI and closing. All defensive systems on standby. Excalibur is in position and powering up.”
“There, can we have a little less crying out you, ya pussy.”
Bogan wasn’t content. He couldn’t stand the tension of waiting and had to direct his frustration somewhere.
“Boy,” he said, “she’s got a voice that’ll just gnash your teeth.”
“Must you always be so negative? Can’t you ever say anything nice about someone?”
Bogan cocked an eyebrow, “Um, yeah, sure I can.”
He paused a moment, then with a smile, “Your breasts are looking lovely today, Captain Aurora.”
Aurora of Shea wasn’t at all rattled by the remark. In her same even tone she responded with, “Remind me to kick your teeth in, will ya?”
“Sure,” Bogan’s smile broadened, “so long as you wear those high heels you wore on the last leave.”
Aurora glanced at him sideways and mumbled, “I hate you guys.”
As the Excalibur continued to trail behind the taskforce, the tension mounted in the Operations Center of the flagship Ittala.
“Sixteen-hundred, sir, (sixteen point six, five million miles) they’re starting to press,” reported an officer.
“All ships hold fire,” ordered a stern faced man. “Raise the Excalibur.”
A lifetime of war shown on his face and in his ghost white hair. He fought to restrain his own anxiety as well as the urge to open fire. Marshal Reen had been the soul member of the Command Staff to escape the blockade of Aultra. In a bold strike, the Krix had wiped out the upper command echelons of the Alliance. It was one of their few innovative strategic moves in the sixty years of war. It left a fleet-general in charge of the military and consequently the entire nation. Laws had been put in place in case of just such a disaster. They gave the highest-ranking officer left the authority to take complete control of the nation. That person was to then follow certain mandates. The primary of which was to ensure the continuation of their species. Reen promoted himself and did what he felt he had to. Reorganizing what little resources and ships he had left, he fell back to the only planet which had even the slightest chance of supporting them, Earth. When a new and powerful weapon was presented to him, he was more than eager to try it. He had little choice otherwise.
Professor Cromwell ignored the call from the Excalibur’s commander. He concentrated on his instruments instead. He couldn’t be bothered with any interruptions at what was the focal point of his research. Not until Colonel Marcone was standing over him, demanding an update, did he respond.
“Two minutes,” Cromwell snorted in the time units of his home planet.
In his head Marcone quickly converted the time to his own units. “That’ll put us in range of their pulse cannons.”
“They’re not that accurate at this range,” Cromwell responded without looking up, or thinking.
“They’re accurate enough. I’ll have to maneuver to avoid the incoming rounds”
“You can’t change course while I’m lining up for discharge!” Cromwell shouted up at the officer. Having never been under fire blinded him to the reality of the situation.
“Then you’ll have to be ready sooner.”
Cromwell used the console to push himself up. Turning to face the Colonel, he would blame the equipment. “The power conduits won’t handle the exchange rate. This is a very precise sequence. I need more time.”
“You have it then.”
As Marcone started back to his command station, he called out to the propulsion officer, “Increase thrust by one-third. Notify Op’ Com’ that I recommend they do the same.”
Cromwell was enraged. He charged up behind Marcone shouting, “You can’t change speed! You’ll throw off my calculations!”
Marcone looked back over his shoulder. “Then you’ll have to recalculate. This ship is not entering the range of those guns.”
Cromwell didn’t have any more time to waste on that fool, timing was far too critical. He would deal with him later. He bitterly directed his staff to make the necessary changes.
A precise checklist had to be followed as the discharge banks reached full power. Finally a technician reported, “Ready for discharge sequence.”
Cromwell stood over him, double-checking the information. “Go with final sequence.”
The technician looked back at the command station. “Does the commanding officer concur?”
Marcone responded with a simple, “Proceed. Cut main engines and rotate into firing position.”
“Four-hundred LI, they are now entering main gun range,” reported Lieutenant Lorran, the Oronos’ Sensor Liaison Officer.
Tellious was becoming uneasy. “They’re too close,” he whispered to Yanex, “they’re well within our defensive perimeter.”
Yanex just folded his arms and sat back in his oversized chair. He glanced from a monitor that displayed a three dimensional representation of their fleet and the incoming attack force, to a close-up of the Excalibur. The tips of Excalibur’s hull extensions glowed brighter and brighter. The ship’s thrusters cut out and she spun around while still moving forward. Four streams of energy were projected back at the Krix fighters.
“I’m reading some kind of energy discharge from the Excalibur,” Tellious blurted out.
“It’s about time,” Yanex mumbled.
The continuous streams of blue energy converged as they streaked toward the wall of Krix fighters. Just ahead of them the streams intersected. Fed by the streams, an intense ball of blue and white energy grew. The mass strengthened until the Excalibur had nothing left to give. With the streams gone the ball intensely flashed a few times, then ruptured.
Some of the lead Krix fighters fled from the unusual phenomenon, but to no avail. The ball had become an explosion, an expanding sphere of energy. Those ships that were not destroyed on impact were swept aside. The entire armada of Krix fighters was engulfed by the blast.
“Incoming!” Lorran shouted, her cry broadcast throughout the ship. “Shock wave impact in thirty deda! (seconds)”
“Rig for collision,” Yanex said calmly, his arms still folded.
Tellious wasn’t as cool. His voice cracked as he ordered, “Shields to full power! Secure all bulkheads!”
Throughout the ship, heavy airtight doors clamped shut. The massive ship was divided into a honeycomb of sealed off compartments. One of the design’s attributes was its ability to sustain large amounts of damage. With a triple hull in some sections, and a decentralized power grid, large areas could be damaged and the ship could remain operational. This was evident by the rear half of Oronos’ starboard landing-bay, which had been blown away in the last battle. Each compartment, or cell, was a three story high chamber interconnected by a centralized system of corridors and transport tubes. Even the long launch-bays, with their impatient fighters, were cut into three sections. The warning signal and sight of a wall dropping nearby brought further unease.
“That’s never a good sign,” Aurora mused.
Lorran watched her monitor as the expanding front of the explosion closed on them. The Excalibur had come about and was running full thrust toward them. As she called out a final countdown to collision, her voice suddenly trailed off.
Tellious jumped from his seat, “Report!”
Lorran stumbled over her words as she read the report from her section. Major Hellor went to her side. He also had disbelief on his face.
“The wave’s reversed direction,” she managed to get out.
“What?” Tellious turned back to the General.
A smile slipped to Yanex’s lips. It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself that simple pleasure. “Maintain course and speed,” he ordered.
Tellious sunk back into his seat as he transferred the directive. Before he finished his message, the Primary Navigation Officer interrupted with, “We’re losing speed, sir.”
“Full power! Hold this velocity!” the strain shown through in Tellious’s voice.
“No good, sir,” reported Captain Ratoe from the forward deck. “We’re still decelerating.”
The retreating wall of the shockwave pulled the comparatively tiny ships along with it.
Tellious turned to the General, “What is that thing?”
Yanex ignored the question as he rose to his feet and ordered, “Full power to the main thrusters. All available power to the inertial compensators.”
Coins and cards smeared across the deck of the launch-bay. Inertial compensation systems, which usually kept those effects from being felt, were unable to counteract the force. Bogan, who sat cross-legged facing forward, threw his arms back to keep himself upright. Others jumped to their feet in an attempt to keep their balance.
“Was that the impact?” asked Sands.
Bogan was visibly shaken. “That was like no hit I ever felt.”
Aurora agreed, “No, that was something else.”
Sands didn’t have much carrier time. He’d spent most of his career defending an Aultrian mining post. Once that system had been lost, he and the other survivors from his squadron were posted to the 663rd on the Oronos.
“What is it then?” he asked.
“It’s almost like we’re tilting back,” said Talya.
“That’s not possible,” Marcus said. “There’d have to be a gravity source for that.”
“A pretty big one to overpower the grav’ units,” added Aurora.
The fleet split up as the individual ships maneuvered to cope with the force that was dragging them in. The retreating shock wave left nothing in its path. A massive gravity well had developed at the focal point of the blast. Nothing could resist the pull. The outer edge of the wave converged on its own center then vanished. Then, for an instant, there was nothing. The stars seemed to dim slightly, just briefly. Finally another explosion erupted from the center. Much smaller than the first, the fleet easily rode it out. The effects of Cromwell’s invention passed.
Cromwell did not join in on the jubilation in the Command Operations Center of the Excalibur. Instead, he studied the incoming data on the discharge. The event had lasted a bit too long. It should have ceased before the collapse of the shock wave. Ambient light should not have been drawn into the vortex. He pulled his technicians from their celebration and had them make several adjustments. The next test would be more accurate.
Marshal Reen’s weathered face appeared on the monitor above him.
“Congratulations professor,” Reen said with a smile. “We have a second wave coming at us. How about another showing?”
“I’ll need time to recharge the banks,” Cromwell responded, “hold this position.”
Colonel Marcone appeared in a box in the upper corner of the screen. “Marshal,” he interjected, “we’ve experienced some system overloads. We haven’t assessed the damage yet. I would advise a local withdrawal.”
That meant to retreat without jumping into ex-space, to stay in the general area.
“The damage is minor, Reen. Nothing I can’t compensate for,” Cromwell snorted.
Reen thought a moment. “Very well Professor. We’ll hold here for the second Krix wave. Keep me informed of your progress, Colonel.”
Cromwell didn’t listen to Marcone’s response. He closed his link with the bitter flick of a switch. It could be quite some time before he got another chance to test his brainchild. He was far too anxious to retreat then. As big a success as it was, it wasn’t perfect. Something had affected his calculations, only minutely. The military was jumping for joy, but he wasn’t satisfied. It had to be perfect.
Perhaps it was the different gravitational makeup of this system compared to the test site? Or maybe the phase residues from all the past ship traffic? He had to know.
The station statistics order brought a one-sentence damage report from all major sections on the Oronos.
“DCM (Damage Control and Maintenance), nothing we can’t handle.”
“Flight Ops’, first fifty show good and ready to go. Strike squadron staged in starboard bay.”
“Primaries and secondaries, armed and ready,” reported Hellor.
Lorran didn’t respond when her turn came. She was intently working on her keyboard. Her silence made the other sections step over her.
“CSS (Communication Sub-Section), on line.”
“Tri-S (Sensor Sub-Section)?” Tellious inquired.
“PPS, good to go. Phase-drive is available.”
“They’re gone,” Lorran’s feeble words could barely be made out.
“Hold on stat’s!” ordered Tellious. “Report SL.”
Lorran was clearer. “All of them, they’re gone, the Krix fighters.”
She looked up to see the General standing at her side. Yanex leaned over to double-check the information for himself. The entire first wave, a thousand ships, had been eradicated.
Hellor was out of his seat again. He too crowded the petite red head. “What the hell was that thing, sir?”
Yanex slowly stood erect and took a deep breath. “A chance,” he answered plainly.
Some of the other officers looked on from their stations with questioning expressions. They should have been under heavy attack right then.
In a louder tone, Yanex stated, “A very brief, intense, black hole.”
Hellor’s eyes widened. “We’ve artificially created a black hole.”
Except for Yanex, most of the others didn’t share in his apprehension. They burst into cheers over the defeat of the attacking force. A chill ran up Hellor’s spine as he silently returned to his station and sat down.