Chapter 22: A Universe of Battle
“Emergence in five seconds…four…three.” The Crockett quivered as the warp bubble began collapsing around her. We were already at general quarters. Our exit point was between Rii and its neighbor, the next planet in, Arjenii. The two planets were near their closest approach, hardly twenty million kilometers apart.
We spotted the pirates right away. A battlecruiser, a dreadnaught and five heavy cruisers were stationed near Arjenii. These ships immediately turned and began burning toward that world. Our big units, Kirov, Salamis and Crown Imperial with four heavy cruisers and five destroyers gave chase.
The remainder of the enemy, a carrier and nine destroyers were in close orbit around Rii. Our portion of the fleet, both carriers, one heavy and four light cruisers, nine destroyers and the gunships accelerated toward Rii.
We were smaller than the destroyers and blended in with them. Our target was the carrier. Unfortunately, so long as it was in close orbit of Rii, we couldn’t shoot at it with the railguns. As we approached, our own carriers launched fighters. The pirate carrier did the same. In addition, ground based fighters lifted off from Rii.
I kept one screen focused on Arjenii. The pirate force there was getting deep in the gravity well and accelerating rapidly. It was becoming evident that they intended to slingshot around that world, probably toward Rii. If they were fast enough, they would have several minutes to wreak havoc with their heavy and medium guns until our dreadnoughts caught up. On the other hand, our railguns will have more big targets. “How’s your baby, Mister Ransome?”
“Capacitors at full and projectile on the rails and ready.”
At that point, I became too busy to pay attention to what was happening elsewhere. The first wave of fighters from Rii and the enemy carrier had met ours in a huge ‘furball’ or dogfight thousands of kilometers wide. The secondary mission of our squadron was to help the destroyers and lights protect our carriers. From time to time, a formation of the enemy would peel away from the furball and make a run at us. Each of their fighters, like ours, carried two torpedoes and two light, rapid-fire lasers. Torpedoes are not ship-killers, but they can do as much damage as a bolt from a heavy particle-beam projector. Too many and even a large ship could soon find its defenses saturated. After a few minutes, all of our conventional weapons were engaged. Fortunately, the torpedoes were not meant for us.
Ransome smiled grimly. “You know as soon as they find out what the Crockett and her sisters are carrying in their bellies, we’ll become the priority targets!”
“Look! Something’s happening on Arjenii!” Vennick’s voice was tense. “Massive energy readings!”
I switched my attention to that screen. The pirate vessels had already passed their closest approach and had disappeared over the horizon. Our ships were close behind; barely two hundred kilometers above the planet. Suddenly, what looked like a small continent bulged and lifted from the surface. “Christ! What is that!?” I exclaimed. Our ships began turning in various directions and burning at maximum thrust, but it was far too late. The Kirov, the flagship, slammed into the wall of debris and nuclear fire. The Salamis and Crown Imperial also disappeared into the spreading cloud. It looked, however, as though most of the cruisers and destroyers would miss the worst of it.
We were stunned into silence. Even the fighting raging near us slowed. The Prefect and Ferrell were aboard the Kirov. Had she come, Ari would have been there as well. Finally, Vennick turned to me. “There must have been hundreds of megatons in that blast. It would have taken days just to hollow out the tunnels.”
The use of nuclear weapons against ships and inhabited worlds was strictly forbidden. Arjenii however was uninhabited and debris from the blast rather than the explosion itself would have done the most damage. “I wonder how long that scheming son-of-a-bitch, Edgar, had that move planned,” I said. There was a strangled sob, which may have come from Ransome, I didn’t look.
The communications officer spoke up. “Message from the commodore.”
“I appear to be the senior surviving flag officer.” Caldwell spoke slowly, but there was something wrong, something almost eager in his voice.
That isn’t confirmed! The Lancaster, with Commodore Kellor may have survived.
“Gun squadron, we must clear our front before turning to engage the enemy’s capital ships. Commence railgun attack on enemy carrier.”
Is he mad? What Edgar just did is arguably a crime. What Caldwell is proposing is a blatant atrocity! “Hail the commodore!” I stood, unable to remain seated.
But Captain Sobuto of the Harrison beat me to it. “We cannot! This is contrary to the laws of war! The Concordat states…”
“Damn the Concordat man!” The commodore’s voice became shrill. “We must destroy the carrier then turn to fight the enemy capital ships. They’re on their way!”
“The carrier is tactically meaningless!” I shouted over the aether. “The enemy’s fighters can land and rearm on Rii”
“All the more reason…” Caldwell began but did not finish. “Rest assured; we will not miss!”
“Hit or miss, it doesn’t matter, sir!” said Ransome tersely. “These projectiles will go through a carrier like butter!”
I felt my mouth go dry. “You can’t do this, sir. There are over a million innocent people down there! The Crockett will not fire!”
“Morgan, you are relieved! Vennick, take command!”
Vennick looked at me and shook his head. “I refuse,” he said calmly.
“I will have you both shot!”
“The Harrison too will not fire!” said Sabuto.
“I will have you all shot!”
“You’ll have to order it from your padded cell,” I hissed.
That was the moment when the Crockett’s luck began to run out. An alarm sounded. “We’re being targeted,” said Vennick. “Torpedoes launched.” A flight of hostile fighters, either frustrated at their inability to hit our carriers or, perhaps, guessing there was more to the strange little gunships, had closed with us, locked on and launched.
“Countermeasures!” I shouted. There was no question of evading guided torpedoes. We had to either fool them or shoot them out of space.
“Four torpedoes,” said Han from the communications/sensor station. “Jamming at maximum…Two tumbling!” A small cheer went up. Now it was up to the gunners. “Impact, twelve seconds!”
We couldn’t see the torpedoes, but we could see the green bolts from the particle cannon and the red beams from the light, rapid-fire lasers all heading for one fast-moving point in space. There was the flash of an explosion. “One left! Three seconds! Brace for impact!” said Vennick.
I recalled a time when my grandfather shot an elk. The massive animal shuddered, leapt into the air and then collapsed into a heap on the ground. In a figurative way, it was the same with the Crockett, dead on impact.
Despite the inertial dampers, we were all thrown to the deck. The primary lighting went out, leaving only the dim auxiliaries. I jumped up, stepped over the sprawled Han and punched the intercom. “Damage Control!” There was silence. I slapped another switch. “Engineering!” This time, we heard the shriek of escaping atmosphere mingled with the screams of men and women. After a few seconds the sounds thinned to the silence of vacuum.
“Damage control here.”
“Report!” I already knew it was bad.
“The torpedo hit the Engineering deck. There was a hull breach and explosive decompression. We have loss of atmosphere over the whole deck.” By necessity, Engineering was mostly open with very little compartmentalization.
“The reactor?” There was no need to ask about casualties. They could only be as bad as could be.
That was mixed news. The miniature star that burned in the heart, was the heart, of every starship had gone out on the Crockett. She was, for all intents and purposes, dead. Even if the reactor was undamaged, it would take the energy of another ship’s heart to restart ours. On the positive side, we weren’t going to become part of a small supernova.
“What can you give me?” I asked.
“Battery power momentarily. There!” The lights and instruments came back on.
I heard Ransome suck in her breath. I turned to see her pointing at the tactical display. The Free Worlds carrier was tumbling out of control, leaving a trail of glowing debris. There were also two growing black spots on the surface of Rii that even as we watched merged into one. Vennick began to curse as the blood drained from my face. “That God damned son-of-a-bitch just murdered a planet!”
“Enemy ships emerging from behind Arjenii,” said Han. “They’re firing at something behind them!”
Someone survived, but who? “Where is our own squadron now? Do we have communication?” I asked.
“Nothing outgoing yet.” The specialist ran his hands and eyes over the board. “Most of the incoming is full of static.”
“If they don’t alter course,” said Vennick, “that enemy battlecruiser will pass within a few hundred kilometers of us. Plenty close enough to spot us and obliterate us.”
“We still have torpedoes don’t we? Perhaps we can play dead, then give them a nasty surprise?”
“I can give you more than that, captain.” Ransome smiled and tapped her board. “We still have a 97% charge on the railgun capacitors. It’ll be one shot only…”
“Tyra, when this is all over, remind me to give you a big hug.”
“Aye, sir. I’ll even write it down.”
“Our own ships should be emerging from behind Arjenii about now, those that survived,” said Vennick. We watched the tactical displays with growing tension. After a few moments, a glowing cloud of debris emerged. It was the ghost of the Kirov.
She’s gone! I thought. The Prefect, Ferrell along with three thousand other men and women, all gone!
Almost immediately afterward, the Salamis and Crown Imperial slid out from behind the crescent planet. The Salamis was in obvious difficulty, yawing and careening on the verge of losing control. The Crown on the other hand, seemed almost untouched. Both ships were firing at the pirates; the Salamis with only one main turret.
“How dead can we seem?” I asked.
“With a snuffed reactor,” the first office snorted, “we don’t need to seem.”
“They won’t spot us ‘til about thirty seconds before their closest approach,” said Han. “In appearance, we’ll be a lifeless hulk.
“Thirty seconds. Tyra is that enough time to stabilize and aim the ship?” I asked.
She leaned over her panel.
“Can you do it?”
She turned back to me. “Aye, sir!”
“Thank you, lieutenant.”
“Captain, I think I should go to engineering and see what can be done to prep for a restart,” said Vennick. “In case we get the chance.”
“Do it, and take with you anyone you think you might need.” I took the helm from Rosen, who was claimed by Vennick. “Han, where are those enemy fighters? I don’t want to get bounced again.”
As the First officer left Ransome touched his arm. “Be careful,” she said. Vennick smiled, nodded and left.
The minutes crept by. Though travelling at hundreds of kilometers per second, the ships’ movements were painfully slow. The heavy squadron, with the Lancaster, Agamemnon and escorting destroyers emerged from behind Arjenii. So only the Kirov was totally lost.
But the Salamis was plainly in serious trouble. Life-pods and other small boats were periodically separating from her; evidently evacuating nonessential crew while still fighting. Suddenly, she slid off to starboard and began to accelerate, putting as much space as possible between herself, the fleet and the cloud of survival boats that trailed her. Dear God, she’s losing it. After one more salvo, her fusion core detonated. Salamis was an older ship but still carried a crew of over two thousand. I wondered how many managed to make it off.
“If their sensors are as good as ours, they’ll pick us up in about a minute,” said Han.
“Begin targeting maneuver on my mark.” Our target was the enemy battlecruiser; the same vessel that tried to intercept the Compass Rose when she fled Rii. It loomed out of the darkness until it dominated our senses as well as our sensors.
“Maneuvering or changing position?” I asked.
Han looked up at me. “She’s bringing her forward turrets to bear on the Crown.”
They’re going to try and finish the Crown Imperial while the heavies are still out of range. “Good, all her attention is going to be on the Crown, leaving none for us.”
“She’s going to be stem-on when she passes,” said Ransome. “A harder target but…” she gave me a predatory grin, “We can do a lot more damage!”
“…Four, three, two, one…”
“We’re being scanned!”
The deck shifted as the Crockett’s maneuver-thrusters brought her out of the dead-ship tumble and aimed her at the battlecruiser, now back lit by Rii’s sun.
“On her!” Shouted Ransome.
“Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!”
There was no sound but recoil from the massive railgun almost took us off our feet. At that range, the run was but a few seconds. The projectile, the size of a small house, struck the enemy on the bow, passed through and through and out the stern. The great beast shuddered. A shock wave reverberated along the hull, snapping off towers and sensor arrays. Then came secondary explosions and whole sections began to come loose.
“I do believe we’ve broken something!” Beamed Ransome.
“My goodness, I do believe you have!” I responded.
“She’s launched!” said Han. “One torpedo, locked and running.”
“Damn!” That took dedication, launching while your ship is coming apart around you. Whoever you are or were, you deserved a better cause. “Countermeasures? Guns?”
Han shook his head. “Fifteen seconds.”
“We’re spent, Captain,” said Ransome. “We’re going to have to sit and take this one. I’m sorry.”
“Pipe through to all decks…Prepare for torpedo impact.” I looked at Han then Tyra, giving them both a hopeful smile. There was nothing else to say.
There was a flash followed by darkness.