Part 5: The battle
Sergeant Marc Van den Berg’s hands hovered over the firing controls. Every second that passed brought the enemy ships closer to their effective firing range. The dropship’s main armament was a turret-mounted rail-cannon, located on its underside. The remaining weapons systems were mostly defensive, such as various active and passive countermeasures, as well as powerful point-defence lasers.
Though, in theory, the projectile fired by the rail-cannon would keep on travelling indefinitely, until it encountered some form of obstacle, the weapon’s range was limited by the dropship’s computing capabilities.
Due to the distances involved, the computer had to give lead to the target by extrapolating its future position, based on current movement. The likelihood that some manoeuvre by the enemy pilot would throw off the computer’s aim grew exponentially with the distance to target, thereby limiting the weapon’s effective range.
The fact that the Tarhinan ships were trying to match the Atlas′ orbit meant that their approach would be slow and steady, giving the defenders more time to react. Unlike a dogfight between atmosphere-based fighters, ship-to-ship combat in space demanded much more planning and precision. If you passed your target or missed a shot, you could not simply head back the other way.
Regardless of the direction in which a ship was pointed, it would continue travelling along its orbital path unless it fired its main engine, altering its orbital velocity. Most ships, especially smaller ones, did not carry enough nuclear fuel or propellant to completely reverse their orbit.
The Tarhinans fired again and, this time, they were lucky. The impulse laser’s beam connected with the aft habitat ring, easily burning its way through the outer hull. The ring’s motion made the beam wander across its surface, causing a large chunk of the hull to be cut clean off, exposing multiple compartments to the murderous vacuum of space. Separated from the spinning habitat ring, the loose hull plating began to drift away from the freighter.
Lieutenant Figueroa had an eye on the debris, making sure that it would not cross path with their dropship. Though impressive, the damage to the huge freighter was minimal and the compartments in question had not been occupied, thus no lives were lost. Figueroa checked the estimated distance to the Tarhinan ships; they were still not in range.
As per their orders, radio silence was maintained, damning the trio to remain spectators until told otherwise.
“This waiting is getting to me,” Van den Berg openly admitted, “we need to do something!”
“They’re out of range, there’s nothing we can do,” Osondu said calmly, trying to ease the tension.
“I know,” his gunner agreed, sounding defeated. “but meanwhile they can take shot after shot at the freighter and we can’t even fire back!” he exclaimed.
“You’ll be able to fire that cannon sooner than you think,” Figueroa tuned in, not looking up from her instruments, “seems like they’re accelerating towards us again.”
Unseen by human eyes, the ship’s instruments had picked up the change in relative velocity of the enemy vessels. Unlike earlier, when they had been decelerating, causing their drive flares to point straight at the freighter, the Tarhinans were picking up speed. The blinding light of their active engines remained hidden behind their ships.
Finally, the Tarhinans were in range. The order to open fire however had not yet been given, much to the frustration of Sergeant Van den Berg, who started shifting in his seat uncomfortably. Strangely enough, the enemy ships had not taken another shot so far, causing Osondu to wonder what their plan was.
“What are they up to?” he asked quietly, without expecting an actual response. The rest of his flight-crew remained focused on their instruments, observing the projected path of the enemy ships headed towards them.
Finally, the long-awaited order came. The Atlas′ Comm-Officer called out to the smaller ships, “Open fire, engage at will!” These five words caused Sergeant Van den Berg to jump into action without even waiting for Osondu’s confirmation.
He fired up the active tracker, locking in the rail-cannon’s targeting system on the Tarhinan ship closest to them. The computer took a moment to handle the necessary calculations. After seconds that seemed like hours, the words “target locked” appeared on the gunner’s main display.
Osondu saw this out of the corner of his eye and simply nodded to Van den Berg, who immediately opened fire. The automatic feeder inserted magnetic projectiles into the breach as fast as the linear accelerator could propel them towards the enemy.
Round after round was fired until the weapon’s capacitors were completely empty and needed to be replenished. This drained massive amounts of energy from the dropship’s fusion generator, a compact Evremov-reactor with a spherical containment unit.
As the Tarhinans had not yet detected the dropship, its first salvo landed a few hits. The combined kinetic energy of the magnetic projectiles and the patrol ship accelerating towards it caused substantial damage, tearing through its hull like a thermo-knife through a block of nutrient paste. The craft was crippled, but not yet out of action.
Now that the secret was out, Osondu, along with the other vessels’ pilots, began thrusting away from the freighter to gain more room to manoeuvre. He fired up the dropship’s ion propulsion system, closing the distance separating them from the Tarhinans.
Osondu’s dropship was the most heavily armed craft of the small flotilla that had hastily been assembled to defend the slow and cumbersome freighter. As such, it was his role to ensure that the enemy ships were taken care of, with the support of the Atlas′ armed scouts.
The Tarhinans continued on their attack course, relying on their manoeuvring thrusters to evade incoming projectiles. They also started firing again, this time aiming at the small ships swarming around the freighter, defending it like bees would an endangered hive.
The assailants were fewer in number but more heavily armed. They coordinated their attacks, alternating impulse lasers and rail-gun fire, focusing one defending ship at a time. It did not take long for the first scoutship to be taken out.
The laser beam grazed the small craft, taking out one of its engines. The resulting asymmetrical thrust caused the scoutship to spin out of control until it was struck by multiple projectiles, the impact of which disintegrating it on the spot.
Osondu cringed at the sight of the slowly expanding cloud of gas and debris. He had never learnt who had flown the scout, but witnessing a fellow pilot being taken out along his ship always left the First Lieutenant with a profound sadness.
Osondu decided that he would mourn him later, focusing instead on the task at hand. The battle was very much undecided as both group of ships kept closing in on each other, every single vessel firing all that they had at their disposal.
The defenders coordinated their fire, focusing on the enemy ship that had been damaged by Van den Berg’s rail-cannon. The Tarhinan pilot, noticing that he had been singled out, tried to break away from the formation, angling his ship away from the fighting and performing an orbit-normal burn.
The max-thrust burn caused a massive drive flare to erupt from the patrol ship, shining bright as a plasma-cutter in the darkness of the interplanetary void.
The Tarhinan did not get far. Shortly after he started his burn, damage caused by the hits taken had destabilised the ship to the point that one of the engine pods separated from the main hull and broke apart. The stress from this failure caused a chain reaction, ultimately leading to the explosion of the nuclear fuel, obliterating the ship along with it.
The hope that followed this success was only brief, as another defending scoutship was destroyed by the two remaining assailants. The destruction of one of the Tarhinan ships had another effect as well.
One of the remaining patrol ships focused its fire on the freighter once again, deciding that it was not worth the trouble of boarding it. The next impulse laser beam struck the Atlas′ central cylinder, unable to burn through the thick armour plating that covered these sections.
As the patrol ships kept getting closer, the fight went into the next phase. The distances involved had shrunk to the effective range of ship-to-ship missiles. As soon as the attackers passed this threshold, both ships released full salvoes of swarm missiles that instantly began to spread out in order to make life as difficult as possible for the point-defence computers.
“We’ve got incoming!” Lieutenant Figueroa shouted, seeing the red warning light on her HUD. At least one of the hostile missiles had locked on to their dropship.
“Copy,” Osondu confirmed briefly as he changed their flight path, boosting away from their current trajectory with the main engine.
“PDC on auto, ready to engage,” Van den Berg said, confirming that the ship was prepared to handle any incoming missiles.
Much faster and much more manoeuvrable than any ship, the swarm missiles raced ahead of the incoming Tarhinan vessels. In a fraction of the time it would take the patrol ships to cover the distance, the missiles were within range of the defender’s laser point-defence systems. One after the other, the approaching warheads were targeted by the powerful laser and successively eliminated.
The dropship’s rail-cannon remained the primary threat to the attacking Tarhinans. Sergeant Van den Berg kept firing as fast as his capacitors would allow, but the Tarhinan pilots had caught on and their manoeuvres had become less predictable, making them harder to hit. The occasional projectile would find its way to the target and do superficial damage, but not enough to dissuade the attackers, who kept getting closer.
Meanwhile, the second round of missiles was on its way. Due to the ever-dwindling distance between attackers and defenders, some of them made it through the point-defence fire this time around.
One of the remaining scoutships was torn apart by the expanding cloud of shrapnel that had formed when the warhead detonated a split-second before impact. Despite their minuscule size, the tiny shards shredded the scout’s hull as well as its interior, including the two-man crew.
The dropship, having been designed to handle planetary-based defensive fire, was more than capable of handling the incoming missiles. The tough hull held together, protecting Osondu, Figueroa and Van den Berg. The outlying systems however took a beating.
The port-side manoeuvring thrusters had been severely damaged or destroyed, the point-defence system was partially inoperable and the main drive had shut down to protect itself from overloading, frying a few capacitors in the process.
Inside, everything had gone dark and silent. Only the reassuring, low-pitched hum emanating from the back of the cabin let them know that their fusion generator had not scrammed and was still providing power to the ship’s systems.
That was the only good news, however.
Apart from that, the dropship was floating dead in space.