Colonel Pathos’ seventeen remaining S-5 strikers entered the rear of Oronos’ port landing-bay one by one. They taxied across the crossover tunnel, through the main hanger, and into the front half of the starboard landing-bay, where ground crews were waiting for them. Although the crews were unfamiliar with the two-man ships, they did manage to recycle them within the average thirty minutes.
Attragone and her two escorting destroyers had fallen into formation with the Oronos by the time the third attack wave was read to deploy, Layix’s ground based units had comprised the second. The sight of three more capital ships on his visual scanners gave the commander of the two Delphian battleships pause, however he maintained his pursuit. Also visually tracking the movement of his own carrier group, he anticipated that fighter support would soon arrive.
Colonel Sands received a copy of the second strike report as he sat in his interceptor in the launch-bay watching his ship be serviced. The Arkonus based units, consisting of the 223rd TSS and the 251st TIS, had come-up behind the Delphian ships and therefore had to run-up alongside them to get into a good broadside attack position. This had given the Delphians notice that they were there. Although the humans managed to avoid the Lowis’ main guns they did have to deal with interceptors.
As the Blou was able to repair her flight-bay, fifty-five Delphian interceptors greeted the Aultrian fighters as they attempted to move into position. This battle went pretty much the same as the first. All of the Delphians dove for the more dangerous S-5s as the fifty MAC-32s tried to cut them off. Ten Delphians were destroyed before the remaining forty-five hit seven S-5s. Four more ships were hit by the Lowis as they turned in on their targets.
Having received a copy of the first strike report, the squadron commander concentrated the remainder of his S-5s on the Lowis and Taggen. Last minute scans told him that the Blou and Taggen still didn’t have their shields back on-line. Six ships managed to hit the carrier with four of their twelve warheads, leaving the massive Delphian carrier heavily damaged and drifting. The other eight S-5s fired sixteen shields disrupters at the Lowis, hitting her with eight and disabling her shields. With two more ships being hit by antiaircraft guns during the pass, the twelve S-5s survived to gather on the far side of the fleet.
Once more the Delphian interceptors moved on the Aultrian strikers and the MACs were there to defend them as best they could. Eight interceptors were destroyed before they could claim three more S-5s. Sixteen lost ships were enough for the strike squadron. Although they still had weapons, their commander was dead and their nine ships scattered. They broke for home, leaving the MACs free to engage the interceptors in a free for all. It was a very brief engagement, spread over millions of miles, which cost the Delphians six interceptors and the Aultrians five MAC-32s. The remaining thirty-one interceptors were left scattered and out of position to pursue the retreating Aultrians. In addition, they were low on fuel and now had no place to land as both carriers were disabled.
The totals as Colonel Sands read them, Aultrian; sixteen S-5 strikers and five MAC-32 long-range interceptors, destroyed. Delphian; twenty-four Type-A interceptors destroyed, one first generation carrier heavily damaged, and one Type Four Battleship without shields, but operational.
General Yanex stood studying his options in the holographic display with a hardened expression. Clearly the 145th had to be launched at the two pursuing battleships, a choice he didn’t like. Another strike, even a reduced one, would finish Hess’ carrier force and his flagship. However those two ships that had been dogging him were one of his two main threats at that point. They had to be dealt with. The only question was whether the strikers got escorts. They really didn’t need them against a target without interceptor protection.
The other big problem was those one hundred and fifty fighters. They had finally turned back after a turn around the sixth planet and were less than an hour from passing their damaged carriers. Hess had managed to get close enough to his old course to make it more than likely that the fighters would spot them. They would be low on fuel, but would have enough speed to catch the Oronos and conduct a suicide run. An order few doubted Hess would give, if he were able that is.
Yanex knew he had to destroy the Lowis before Hess could give that order. There were only two ways to do that right then, launch the Attragone’s strikers against it, or turn and engage with his own main guns. That was a choice that was clearly out of the question, even for Yanex. Oronos would never survive a three to one engagement. Once the two pursuing battleships had been eliminated then he could turn his attention back to Hess.
General Gilderith, the senior officer, disagreed somewhat. The only reason he’d altered course back toward Oronos was to help with interceptor coverage should they end up fighting Hess’ main fighter group, a prospect he wanted to avoid. Yanex’s suggestion of a direct fire engagement would make that a certainty. Gilderith wanted to put distance between himself and the Delphians and use his strikers to hit them. To this end, he overrode and enraged General Layix by ordering what was left of the 223rd strike squadron to land on the Attragone to reinforce his own unit once they returned from the third sortie.
Then Hess gave Yanex the opportunity for a ship to ship slugging match. The Lowis suddenly abandoned the two disabled carriers and came about to a direct intercept of the human taskforce. With the two pursuing battleships keeping them from making any great course changes, this would give Hess a dramatic side approach. He would come in on the Oronos with his full forward display of armament, and no shields. It was either a bold move to intimidate the Aultrians into altering heading and bringing his other two ships into range, or a purely irrational act.
Surely if Hess had known more about the ship he was charging toward, and the fact that they had a strike squadron ready to launch, it’s questionable that he would have taken this action. However he did, and it was a mistake Yanex wasn’t going to let him get away with.
“Major Ratoe,” Yanex ordered in a level voice, “bring us about to a direct heading toward the Lowis. Bring all remaining reactors on-line.”
As the Oronos swung about, Attragone and her destroyers stayed on the same heading.
“I estimate the Lowis will enter our range in roughly two mayda (half an hour),” Hellor called out.
Marcone tried to maintain a calm exterior as monitors filled with the image of the oncoming warship and statistics about her. He looked up through the holographic display at a placid Marlanna and tried to be reassuring to her, even though in the back of his mind he knew she didn’t need it.
“We have twenty percent greater range than they do,” Marcone said to her.
Then he half turned to his suddenly energetic commander.
“I take it we plan to hit them before we come into their range,” he stated rather than asked.
“Of course,” Yanex responded as he strode by them and continued issuing orders.
“Launch the 145th,” Yanex directed with a clenched fist. “Target those two battleships. I’m tired of looking at them.”
“Yes, sir,” Major Carlisle said with enthusiasm. “Escorts sir?”
“No,” Yanex said after a moment of thought. “A smaller formation might have a chance at going in clean.”
“Two pursuing battleships altering heading to new intercept course,” Lorran called out. “We will be in their maximum in one point five may’.”
With the Lowis charging head-on and two more ships now coming in from the side, Yanex was gambling on the 145th. Even if they missed altogether he could still veer off from the Lowis after firing his main guns. If he were lucky, that would place all of the battleships behind him and just within his range. If not, he would end up in theirs and be slowly picked apart.
Colonel Pathos didn’t let him down this time. The two battleships either didn’t see the strikers launch out of the front of Oronos’ starboard landing-bay, or didn’t think they were headed for them. Either way, 145th took no main gun fire as they divided into two groups and dove at the battleships. Antiaircraft fire did manage to take two S-5s as they past and scored enough hits with Oronos’ more advanced torpedoes to knockdown both ships’ shields. Once the main guns did start responding they hit four more ships before the remaining eleven S-5s made their second pass.
Both battleships took two direct hits each. One had fire erupt in its propulsion section and lost speed quickly. The other suffered damage to its command and control systems, which disabled its fire control. Both lost interest in the Oronos.
The 145th would be merged with the remnants of the 223rd back on the Attragone to form the new 145th with twenty ships. The 223rd would be disbanded and reformed at a later date. The new 145th would later be reinforced to full strength and awarded a unit citation for the Battle of Arkonus. Colonel Pathos would also be individually decorated, posthumously.
“Don’t cheer,” Gilderith called out to his crew as they watched the two Delphian battleships rock from the explosions and go off course, “those poor bastards are dying out there.”
“Oronos and Lowis are continuing to close, head-on,” Colonel Sella called out from the Sensor Station.
“What’s that crazy bastard doing?” Gilderith mumbled. “There’s no need for this. We have enough strikers to finish them off.”
“Arm and deploy the mains, Major Hellor,” General Yanex ordered from the middle of the COC.
“Delphian Battleship Lowis,” Lorran announced over the intercom, “approaching maximum range. Tri-S estimates we will enter their range in sixty-six deda (about one minute) after that.”
Yanex strode over to his Weapons Officer. “Give me five full barrage patterns. Rounds at fifty-percent power. Make the first pattern dead-on, tight on the rest.”
Hellor smiled up at him. “Half burst barrage, dead-on the first, short maneuvering prediction on the next four, yes sir.”
“Major Ratoe,” Yanex called out as he walked back to the holographic display, “hold on this heading until time on target has elapsed. Then come about to at least fifteen degrees to starboard. If target matches, use your discretion to keep us out of her range.”
“Begging the Commander’s pardon,” Ratoe responded, “at that time we will already be within the targets range, sir”
“I understand,” Yanex said as he stood facing a nervous Marcone and unnaturally calm Princess.
“If target maneuvers toward us,” he said more to the people in front of him than Ratoe, “put our stern to them. We’ll follow-up with the rear facing batteries and maneuver accordingly.”
“Ready on fire program,” Major Hellor announced.
“Power grid fully charged,” Major Ratoe responded in kind.
Yanex simple answered them with a clearly stated and level, “Fire.”
All eight of the Oronos’ main guns fired five rounds each in a rotating pattern around the ship’s form designed to not throw it off kilt. The massive vessel took on a red hue as rounds streaked away from the eight gun mounts on the forward hull and wing tips, causing the ship drop slightly in speed. The entire firing would cause the ship to lose three percent of her velocity when it was done. The ship’s power grid was drained to under a quarter. If she had to power her shields as well, they could have never fired so much energy.
“Pulse away,” Hellor announced when the firing was complete.
“They’re on steady,” Lorran followed. “Target holding course.”
“Good,” Yanex answered with an almost bloodthirsty jubilance. It was an excitement that didn’t go unnoticed by his honored guest. Marlanna was taking very careful mental notes of everything she saw. She was impressed by the crew’s cool professionalism and how they followed orders without question as the situation slowly became more dangerous. Even the second in command, whom under his own discernment would have avoided such a dramatic confutation, obeyed his commands efficiently. His role seemed to be that of the voice of reason, despite his obvious fear.
Marcone couldn’t control the uncomfortable feeling as he felt her eyes bore into the side of his head. It was as if she were actually looking into him, sifting through his thoughts and emotions. He would have been terrified to know how close to being right he was.
Instead he stared into the holographic display and watched the minute and a half it took the rounds to travel the four million miles count down.
He was astonished to see that the Delphian battleship hadn’t taken any evasive maneuvers to avoid the incoming rounds. All Hess had to do was change heading slightly as soon as he saw them fire and they’d have missed him completely. Instead he continued his headlong charge, without the protection of his shields, in an attempt to bring his own guns into range.
His thoughts were interrupted by Lorran’s announcement of, “Now entering enemy range. Target holding course, impact in thirty deda.”
Marcone continued to watch the numbers count down. “I can’t believe he hasn’t changed heading yet,” he said more to himself. Then looked over to Yanex beside him. “He’s had a visual lock on us the whole time. Even if he can’t track the energy, he has to know we fired?”
“He knows,” Yanex said with folded arms. “He may not think he’s in our range. Maybe he thinks we’re trying to bluff him off his firing run.”
Marcone shook his head at that thought. “After all he’s seen so far, sir? He has to know we’re superior to him. He can’t be that foolish.”
“He’s not that foolish, Colonel.” Marlanna’s voice rattled him. It took him by surprise because he not only heard it in his ears, her voice rang in his head like she was whispering into his brain. When her next sentence sounded normal he tried to dismiss the idea. However the experience never left him. In that one moment, Marcone went from distrusting her to fearing her.
“He’s that arrogant,” she had continued.
“Target is now firing,” Lorran’s voice said over their headsets.
“Initiate course change,” Yanex ordered as he reached down to zoom the display into the Lowis. Computer generated symbols representing the Lowis’ outbound rounds and the Oronos’ inbound rounds crossed paths.
“Ten deda until TOT (time on target),” Lorran announced.
“He still hasn’t changed course,” Marcone said in astonishment. “He’s going to take it dead-on.”
“His proximity alarms should be going off,” Yanex paused, “now.”
“Target is taking evasive maneuvers,” Lorran called out.
Yanex crossed his arms once more. “It’s too late.”
Red bolts of power streaked past the Delphian battleship as she completed her banking turn. The first tight bunch of rounds had been fired at where she would have been if she hadn’t changed course. The rest were scattered in a pattern, trying to predict where she might be. Advanced targeting and scanners had vastly improved the odds of hitting something at such a great distance, however a moving object that could simply move out of the way was extremely hard to hit. Added to that was the fact that they had a minute and a half to do so.
Hess had waited until the last second. He had waited to align his own targeting system and fire. It was a decision that he made out of blind rage. It was a decision that greatly increased the odds of his ship being hit.
Long-range battleship duels had been known to go on for days, each side firing and out maneuvering incoming rounds. It only took one hit to finish a ship. One round would never overwhelm a ship’s shields, but it would knock the ship off its axis. Spinning out of control, it would then be easy to predict where the ship would be in the next few moments. As the crew fought to regain maneuvering, the enemy would concentrate tight patterns of fire at the helpless ship.
For the Lowis, without her shields, the single round that struck her at mid-ship was even more devastating. The outer containment field of the round punched a hole in the side of the massive ship before rupturing to unleash the inner explosive force. One quarter of Lowis’ starboard side was vaporized and a cloud of debris was blown out into the blackness. The ship was thrown into a wild spin.
“Got ’im!” Hellor shouted as a feed from Tri-S gave him the report.
Yanex let the cheers linger a moment before issuing his next set of orders. “Major Hellor, switch to quarter burst and fire at will. Major Ratoe, put us back on heading toward the Lowis.”
Then Yanex paused a moment in thought. “Correction, set course past the Lowis and toward those two carriers.”
Sparks flew from an exploding control panel when a falling beam struck it. Smoke filled the air as crewmembers fought fires that kept popping up. Dead and groaning bodies lay about the deck of the Lowis’ command center. Another blast rocked the ship as Hess made his way over to one of the few crewmen that were still at his station. “Weapons status!” he demanded.
“Targeting has been lost,” replied the officer. White milky blood poured down his face. “We’ve lost control of the power grid.”
“What about our attack squadrons? How long until they return?”
The officer glanced about his console. With the sensors gone there was no way to be sure. “It will be at least another six says (thirty minutes) until they can communicate with the Blou, My Ly,” he guessed, a very optimistic guess.
Hess stood erect from his normally crouched position. Perched on his hind legs, he surveyed the devastation around him. His ship, his mighty warship, the finest in the entire universe, how could this have happened? How could he have been defeated? Even as he choked on the thickening smoke and the thinning air, a part of his mind refused to accept the stark reality. It was some terrible nightmare that he would soon awaken from.
“My Ly! Enemy vessel closing on the starboard side!” someone shouted from the noise and confusion.
Hess looked up at what was left of his display screen to see the flickering image of the ship he had once held in his grasp. Visual tracking had lost contact with the ship when they were first hit. Even though the Lowis was still unable to regain attitude control, sensors had spotted the massive vessel as it closed on a course that would pass them very closely.
The true source of his nightmare was upon him, the Oronos. He sank down to his normal stature, arms dangling just above the floor, head straight out from the body.
“They are hailing us, My Ly,” reported the officer next to him. “They are calling for us to surrender.”
The close quartered jamming cleared, however they were still blocked from communicating with their base.
“I will not be taken,” Hess announced defiantly without looking at the officer. He realized that his great ship was finished. His only hope was to try to save his crew and the other vessels. They could at least carry on the story of his bravery and preserve his legend. He would stall until his fighters could make it back. He turned to the officer and in a sullen voice ordered, “Abandon ship.”
Hess then called for an open channel to the enemy ship. Clearing his voice, he addressed the aliens with, “You who call for my surrender dishonor us both by suggesting such an action. As true worriers, we both share in the one the one fabric that binds the universe together, honor. Honor is what makes the Empire great. It sets us above all others. It sets us above you.”
General Yanex listened to about two lines of the rambling speech before he was informed that the Delphians were evacuating the ship.
“We’re picking up life pods from the Lowis,” Lorran reported.
Yanex stepped over to examine the scanner data. He took careful note of the returning wave of ships that had been sent after him. His fighters were standing by to meet then. He glanced up once more to see the face of the Delphian commander who would have inflicted so much pain and suffering on his people, if it were not for this battle. In a way he almost respected the alien leader. Despite his arrogance, Hess had been known as one of the sectors finest tactical minds. He would have served well against the Krix, if it had not been for the fact that he was executed as a war criminal; or would have been if the future had not been rewritten.
Yanex shuddered at the thought. What is and what was could become very confusing if he thought about it for too long. To his proud opponent up on the screen, who was obviously stalling for his fighters, he simply replied, “I understand, Commander.”
“Any word from the Delphian carriers?” Yanex inquired of his communication officer.
“No sir, nothing,” replied Nather.
Yanex turned to his weapons officer, “Major Hellor, destroy the Lowis.”
Hellor manually selected four batteries for single shots at the helpless ship. “Ready to fire.”
“Commander,” Marcone rushed across the room, “they’re evacuating.”
With no orders to the contrary, and to spite Marcone, Hellor initiated the firing sequence. Four rounds rang out from the batteries mounted on the Oronos’ forward hull. They struck in a matter of seconds. What was left of the Lowis erupted in a huge ball of energy. Hess’ voice fell silent.
Marcone was shocked by the General’s brutality. He stepped up to the man and asked in a hushed voice, “They were abandoning ship. We couldn’t have given them more time?”
Yanex didn’t answer. His cold expression remained unchanged as he turned to listen to the communication officer.
“Incoming message from the Delphian carrier Taggen, they wish to surrender.” Nather paused a moment, “As does the Blou.”
“Commander,” Lorran called out. “Remaining two battleships are breaking off and retreating.”
Yanex briefly glared at the Colonel before dictating further orders. “Notify both carriers that their fighters are to stand down and hold their position. They will receive an alternate landing site on one of the planets as soon as the arrangements can be made. Have General Layix assemble his infantry units to take control of those two carriers.”
“You don’t want to use our own people?” Hellor asked.
“No, I want to keep our unit onboard.”
Yanex turned to Major Carlisle, “Turn flight operations over to the Attragone and ground based squadrons. As soon as the situation is secure recall all our ships and probes.”
Yanex returned to the center of the room and spoke aloud, for all to hear, “I don’t see any further reason for us to be here.”
He faced Princess Marlanna, “Do you, Your Highness?”
“Actually I don’t, General,” she smiled. “The Emperor looks forward to meeting you.”
“As I do he.”
Yanex turned back to his elated crew. “Major Ratoe, make ready to get underway.”
The Major rose from his seat and stood at attention. A gleeful, “Yes sir,” his response.
“As soon as we have retrieved all our people, we set course for Aultra.”
Cheers filled the COC. Word raced through the ship as celebrations began. After winning a battle that was never supposed to take place, the crew of the battered ship was finally going home. They had accomplished an unthinkable task for that time. They had defeated a large portion of one of the more powerful fleets in the sector. The main body of the Delphian force, one hundred interceptors and fifty strikers, never fired a shot.
Colonel Marcone was not as jubilant as everyone else though. He was disturbed by what he had witnessed from his old friend. Although the Alliance did not, and probably would never exist, Yanex had treated those living beings as if they were the Krix. It troubled him deeply. He was even move unnerved after he was called aside and told, “Had I allowed the Lowis to be evacuated, those carriers would have expected the same. They would have self-destructed on their way out. As we stand, Aultra has two much needed additions to its fleet.”
The General implied that he was not to be second-guessed again.
The celebration was in full swing by the time the interceptors parked in the hanger. The additional news of their return to Aultra was also a welcome greeting.
“I guess we don’t have to worry about a paradox now,” Sands said as he caught up with Marcus, “the future’s been drastically changed.”
Marcus smiled as they walked toward the transport. “There have already been many paradoxes. Aultra was meant to lose this war. Ly Hess was to be honored as a hero, and then condemned for the brutality of his subordinates.”
“It’s a rank, like general.”
“In your own system,” Marcus went on, “we interrupted a covert operation by the Attragone. Who knows what effect that might have.”
Sands thought about that. He hadn’t given it much consideration, not like some others had. He then realized how the future had been drastically changed. For the first time, in his heart, he believed there was a chance. Any doubt that he might have had in the mission, and the General, was gone.
“It’s gonna work.”
“The future has indeed been changed,” Marcus said in a strangely dark tone, the jubilation of victory suddenly absent. “As to whether it is for the better, only time will tell. There’s no way to predict the outcome from this point on.”
“Anything would be better than what we left.”
Sands was in his room changing when Aurora found him.
“I talked with Blane,” she said, “he didn’t pick up the crystal on anyone leaving on that shuttle for the Rijian.”
“Maybe they ditched it when they saw us.”
“I don’t think so,” Aurora said as she took a seat on his dresser. “Not everyone left.”
“Really? How interesting. And who might’ve accidentally missed their flight.”
“Her Royal Bitchy-ness and her two goons.”
“No shit,” Sands said slowly. Then walked over to her while thinking. “Did they scan her room?”
“What good would that do? There’s a terminal in there, and probably plenty of crystals to go with it.”
Sands shook his head. “And there’s plenty of time to read it by the time we get to Aultra, damn!”
“That’s if they’re the ones that have it.”
As he finished dressing in front of her, Sands tried to think. “Zollin is the key to this. He must of stolen the stuff for Kryton, he worked for him”
“Holder may have worked for Kryton,” she jabbed him with, “but somehow I can’t see him into something like this. I mean, Kryton is certainly scummy enough for this, but I can’t see him inspiring that kind of loyalty. Holder evacuated his skull, remember?”
Remember? Sands wished he could forget. The image was burned into his mind. What could drive a man to do that? Not just the fact that he did it, it was that blank look on his face. A look as though he wasn’t even thinking about it.
Marcus appeared in the doorway with a half empty bottle in his hand. With a big smile he stepped in and held it out for the Colonel.
“Homeward bound,” he proclaimed.
“Home?” asked the ever-pessimistic Aurora.
“Well, as close as we’re ever gonna get.”
Sands took two big gulps from the bottle then passed it over to Aurora. Thoughts of his own home crept up. He was suddenly concerned about what his fellow Earthmen might be thinking.
“I’ve been debating whether I should look myself up or not,” Marcus said. “Warn myself about my third wife, the bitch.”
Aurora handed the bottle back to him after taking her share. “Somehow I don’t think you’re gonna get the chance.”
“I’m sorry to admit that I share your pessimism,” conceded Marcus. “This ought to be interesting.”
“Hey, you’ve been around forever, remember a guy named Zollin?” Aurora asked the old man.
“The guy you killed?”
“He killed himself,” Sands said as he jumped out of his deep thought. Earth was pushed aside once more.
Marcus thought a moment. “I recall the name, but I can’t quite place it.”
“He worked for Kryton, that politician.”
Marcus’ face lit up. “Yeah, I remember him. He murdered Kryton.”
“Murdered him? Ya shittin’ me,” Sands said.
“I knew I’d heard that name before,” said Aurora.
“Oh yeah,” Marcus continued. “It took the police a while to figure it out. When they closed in to arrest him, Zollin committed suicide.”
“Bang, right?” Sands made a gun out of his fingers and pointed at his chin.
“I don’t recall the details. Just that it was a big deal at the time.”
“When did it happen?” Aurora asked.
“In a few cycles, just before the overthrow of the government.”
Sands and Aurora looked at each other in astonishment.