2948-02-04 – Tales from the Service:

I’m sure all of you are already familiar with the Navy’s data (what has been released at any rate) about the engagement in Matusalemme, contesting the colony of Adimari Valis. Obviously, the news isn’t good. Though the Incarnation force in the area lacks any ships on the scale of our battleship units (its battle line is composed of between fifteen and twenty Tyrant heavy cruisers), it seems to have driven off a mixed Fifth Fleet detachment centered around the dreadnoughts Hercules and Pericles with only minor losses.

Losses for the Fifth Fleet were not so heavy, as a percentage of forces engaged, as they were at the Battle of Berkant, but this Battle of Bodrogi still resulted in significant damage to both of the big battlewagons engaged, in addition to the total loss of two heavy cruisers, Mannerheim and Okayinka. Losses to the lighter fleet units was limited, except that a heavy toll was taken from strike squadrons.

Though some datasphere commentators have decided to use the results of the battle to stoke fear among their audience, I will point out that there are some bright points in this mess. The Incarnation is still incapable of destroying a Confederated battlewagon, which indicates that they will have trouble dealing with the heavy orbital defense installations present at some of the more populous Frontier worlds like Maribel and Håkøya. The Confederated fleet was not driven from the system entirely, and skirmishes between light units continue until the moment of this writing as Confederated Magpies and Palmettos attempt to reach the big, lumbering troop and supply carriers in orbit over Adimari Valis, intercepted by Coronach squadrons. With both mercenary and Confederated forces buying the colony several weeks, almost eighty percent of the planet’s population was evacuated before a single Incarnation boot touched the dusty ground.

The strangest bit of the battle, and the snippet which the Navy has given us access to relate to the audience in this week’s Tales from the Service, is the loss of the cruiser Carl Gustaf Mannerheim – it was not lost to enemy gunfire.

Captain Chinwe Abel threw himself into one of the crash-padded restraint chairs in Carl Gustaf Mannerheim’s combat intelligence center as the salvo of missiles bored in on his ship, feeling the automatic restraints snake over his torso to hold him in place.

Somewhere beyond the vast bulk of the cruiser, railguns chattered out cones of white-hot rail slugs into the path of the incoming ordinance, and the point defense system, seizing control of every multipurpose laser that could be brought to bear, was ready to slag the projectiles with coherent light. The ship’s screening projectors had absorbed a few hits, but they were still functioning at near peak efficiency, and the helm was already dialed in for last-second evasive maneuvers to throw off the aim of the missiles’ shaped fission warheads. Mannerheim’s protective trio of point defense frigates threw up their own clouds of railshot and spat clusters of countermissiles, but they could only do so much.

The timer ticked down to one second, and the world around Captain Abel was wrenched in several directions and spun on its head. Even with the inertial isolation of the ship’s A-grav axis, he felt at least six effective gees alternately crush him into the padding and hurl him against the restraints.

Two new alarms began to wail as the restraints slithered back into the chair, but Abel knew the moment his feet were back on the deck that his ship had escaped serious damage. The subtle hum of the ship’s drive was still there, strong and healthy, and there was no distant roar of a massive pressure-hull breach. “What’s our status?” He called, knowing the damage-control chief would be ready with the answer.

“Screens took the worst of it, Captain. We lost some hull plating and fire control to two light railgun batteries.” Chief Nathans responded, the calm in his gruff voice reassuring Abel more than the content of his report.

The minor miracle didn’t conceal the fact that things were not going well in Matusalemme. The fleet detachment sent to chase away the Incarnation had tried to soften the enemy cruisers up with long range missile and heavy railgun fire, but the faster enemy ships had closed the distance with only two of their nearly twenty ships forced to drop out of formation.

The odds, favorable at long range, should have still been even in a general melee, but somehow the damnable Nate crews were able to keep their mutually supporting screening projectors aligned on each other even through close-range maneuvers. The whole formation seemed to maneuver as one graceful unit, rather than two dozen hulls each a hundred klicks from its neighbors. By comparison, the heavy cruisers and dreadnoughts at the core of the Confederated formation seemed clumsy and fractured. Already, Okayinka was faltering and Vespacian was falling out of line with damage to its main drive.

The big sibling battlewagons, though taking at least as much punishment, were faring a bit better – Hercules was trading fire to its own advantage with the nearest Tyrant, and Pericles had forced away a ship closing in to finish off Vespacian, riddling it along its length with its heavy rail-cannon.

“Gunnery, concentrate on Hercules’s target.” Abel drew a ring around the insubstantial mote in the three-dimensional display. The battleship, designed for long-range combat, didn’t have very many close-range weapons, but Mannerheim was another story. Shortly, the ship’s heavy plasma cannons locked onto the target.

The gouts of self-contained, superheated ions took only a few seconds to race to the Tyrant, and those that didn’t fizzle out in the complex spatial shear of the enemy ship’s screening fields tore up huge swaths of the big ships’ heavy plating and chewed up the machinery and men beneath. The Tyrant faltered, falling out of formation, and the next few shots from the battleship’s big cannons nearly tore it in half. Abel might have cheered, but at almost the same instant, wounded Okayinka met a similar fate.

A chirp told Captain Abel that there was an update on the fleet control band. As he examined the new orders on the display, Mannerheim trembled, its plating once again absorbing a hit. Admiral Mhasalkar  had evidently decided that his fleet could not afford to trade heavy ships on a one-for-one basis. The order was for the heavy units to withdraw back toward the jump limit, forcing the enemy to either break off pursuit, switch to engaging the lighter fleet units, or be whittled away at close range during the whole pursuit by dozens of frigates and destroyers.

Balling his hands into helplessly frustrated fists, Abel relayed the order to the helm, watching on the display as the ship’s gunners concentrated their plasma weapons on another Tyrant, doing little damage but forcing it to move out of range. As it did, the missile bays unleashed a salvo of their own, the tiny needle-icons fanning out before homing in on the retreating ship.

Abel never saw if the salvo did any damage. The CIC display flickered, then blinked out, leaving him blind in semidarkness. “Bridge, I’ve lost tactical display. What’s going on?”

There was no response. The ship’s drive still hummed, but the silence on the comms channel was deafening. Turning to one of the hard-line terminals in the compartment, Abel keyed in a new channel to the other command centers of his ship. “Comms are down and I’ve lost tactical display. Are we still on course?”

“Computer core is down!” Chief Nathans barked. “Slagged by some sort of timed incendiary. The backups too. Going to have to vent these compartments to deal with the fire.”


“You can go all in on that bet, Captain.”

“Dammit.” Without any centralized computer system, every part of the ship would revert to manual control. The ad-hoc datasphere created by the crew’s various smaller digital devices might barely be enough to limp away, but without computer coordination, the point defense system couldn’t possibly swat incoming missiles, and evasive action was all but impossible.

Finally, someone on the bridge patched themselves in. “I’m reading laser strikes on the screens. We’re at the back of the line. Frigates are doing their best, but-”

At that moment, the reassuring hum of the main drive faltered. “Main drive losing power!” Someone shrieked.

Captain Abel cursed under his breath. His ship had just received a full atmospheric system overhaul at Håkøya – dozens of Navy and civilian techs had swarmed through every part of the ship, clambering into crawlspaces and suiting up to ramble through the unpressurized portions of her hull. Evidently, the fast-growing Naval outpost in that system did not have the same tight security as the Core Worlds installations. “Any prayer of getting acceleration back?”

“Not in time.” The damage control chief sounded as heartbroken as his captain felt.

Abel took a deep breath, then, in light of the dozen-odd Tyrant cruisers bearing down on his stricken ship, gave the order no starship captain ever relished. “All hands, abandon ship. Repeat, abandon ship immediately.”

If the computer had been functioning, it would have blared out this order in every compartment, but without it, Abel knew he had to rely on his crew to carry that message to any compartment not yet connected to the ad-hoc datasphere. Even so, there would inevitably be some left behind.

There was one more unpleasant task to perform before he ran for the launch bay or the escape-pod banks with everyone else. Producing a data-key lanyard from his pocket, Abel plugged it into the terminal in the command center. Its screen lit up with a very simple interface which could issue only one command. “Chief, I’m arming for self-destruct.”

“Confirmed from here. Make it ten minutes.”

Abel keyed in the indicated time, then winced as he pressed the red button on the terminal’s face. There was no fanfare to the act of instructing his ship to scuttle itself – the computer, though not responsible for self-destruct itself, would have been responsible for the screeching self-destruct alarm. “It’s done, Chief. Let’s get the hell out of here.”