2948-02-11 – Tales from the Service: A Surprise Strike

Though skirmishing continues in Matusalemme, it seems that the enemy holds the inner system for the moment. Oddly, they seem content to leave the Navy’s new HyperCast relay in the system alone; perhaps they suspect the relatively light force defending the installation is a trap. For all we know back here, it might well be.

The nearly-depopulated spaceport capitol of Adimari Valis is in Incarnation hands, and while I’m certain the scattered armed forces on the ground are still holding out in the planet’s notoriously rugged terrain, there seems no realistic way of reaching them in time. Short of the whole Fifth Fleet going in to take the system back to save perhaps ten thousand holdouts, it seems their best bet is to lie low and subsist as best they can. The Incarnation can only hold the system as long as the bulk of its cruiser force remains on station there, after all – in a few months, they’ll likely be forced to withdraw. Those brave souls on the ground there will be, in the meantime, in our prayers.

This week’s entry was sent in by Lieutenant Frans Salvi, a strike pilot engaged in the fighting in Matusalemme. In the deadly strike-wing sparring between his Magpie squadron and Incarnation Coronachs, losses have been quite heavy on the Confederated Navy side. The objective for the Navy strike pilots has been the stream of boxy, sluggish logistics haulers which the Incarnation fleet is shuttling to and from Adimari Valis under escort, carrying troops, weapons, and machinery to reinforce their groundside detachment. Obviously, the Incarnation is doing its best to protect these vulnerable assets, as the fleet at Matusalemme is at the end of a long supply line stretching back to the Sagittarius Arm.

[N.T.B. - The tactic described here has been used sufficiently many times in Matusalemme in the last few weeks that Naval Intelligence expects the Incarnation has figured it out by now.]

Frans Salvi had no way of knowing whether his squadron was still there, drifting in a loose cloud in the empty space outside his canopy. His Magpie was drifting without power, even its atmospherics disabled to minimize waste heat radiating off the hull. Breathing only with the aid of his flight suit’s own reserve oxygen, he could only watch the timer on his wrist display tick down toward the calculated time of intercept.

Most likely, when his little ship came alive, it would find itself in yet another patch of empty Matusalemme space, surrounded by nothing but the stellar wind and the other Magpies in the squadron. Launched from their mothership’s hangar cradles during a high-gee maneuver, the squadron had been cleverly catapulted onto a pre-calculated flight path across the system, timed carefully to intercept a convoy of two Incarnation haulers heading for the jump limit at the far edge of the system. Unfortunately, with all the Magpies shut down, there was no way to know if the maneuver had put them on the right course, or if the Incarnation convoy had divined the purpose of the wild maneuvers of one of the Confederated Navy cruisers skulking around the system and altered course. All Frans could do was watch the timer on his wrist, exchange sparse conversation with his gunners, and prepare to start up the ship on schedule.

“Bet you we’re on target.” Kosuke Ragno, the portside gunner, said for perhaps the fifteenth time.

“Hells, Rags, would you stop saying that?” Zahir Stevens, lazing in the starboard gunnery harness, had long since lost patience with the repeated assertion. “Nobody’s taking your bet.”

By the numbers, Frans knew he should have taken Ragno’s bet the first time he’d offered it. It seemed an easy way to earn quick credits, or a few drinks at his gunner’s expense. Still, he held his silence. The computer had put their chances of being on target below thirty percent in the pre-mission briefing, but something about the crushing jolt of their launch had felt inexplicably correct. “Fifty seconds to start-up. Run final checks back there. No telling what broke in seventeen hours without heat.”

As the two gunners began powering up the tiny power cells that gave life to their consoles and diagnostic equipment, he switched on a trickle of power from the main batteries to start his own sequence. The Magpies for the strike had been modified for the mission, but not enough to rob him of the familiarity of Jenny Red’s usual character. His ship had seen its three crew through the war safely so far, and it would, he knew, bring him home once more, no matter what surrounded her when the power-up sequence started the flow of sensor data.

“Green board here, Lieutenant.” Stevens reported.

Ragno finished his checks a moment later. “I’ve got a few warnings, but nothing serious.”

“Cockpit board is clear.” Frans switched off the battery power to the diagnostic system, and his console once again went dark. There were only six seconds left. “Start-up in five.”

The timer hit zero, and Franz yanked the master start switch. With a whine trailing off into a high-pitched hum, the little ship’s reactor began to burn, and power flooded through all systems. Normally, a Magpie took almost ten minutes to complete a cold start, but the techs had rigged Jenny Red and the rest of the squadron for a crash start. The process would take only a few seconds, but it would, he was assured, put several missions worth of wear on most of the systems.

Almost immediately, data began flooding into the console displays before they had finished warming up from the chilly equilibrium of interplanetary space. “Contact.” Frans was almost more surprised at his own surprise than the data flooding in. “Less than a hundred klicks. Damn, they pulled it off. One Tyrant leading a pair of haulers. No strike in sight.”

Ragno whooped into the intercom, and Frans winced at the noise. The control column appeared out of the center console, and he grabbed it, tapping the thrusters to spin the Magpie in place. The ship’s tiny A-grav axis was the only system which the techs couldn’t speed up – it would take more than a minute to finish coming online, jump-started by a disposable battery bolted under the gunship’s belly. Until then, he had to be careful not to accelerate or decelerate too fast, lest he turn himself and the gunners into smears of organic paste soaked into their crash-harnesses.

As the strike ship turned, the distortion halos of a trio of gigantic gravitic drives warped the background stars. “Target acquired. Talos units, report status and form up.”

The squadron’s nine other gunships, coming online at almost the same instant, appeared on the status panel, each showing some variation of not-quite-full operational effectiveness. Still, the squadron had come through well enough, and they had caught Nate napping. There wasn’t time to pause and make repairs to cold-damaged or vacuum-welded components.

Without waiting for the squadron to coalesce, Frans nudged the throttle forward. Even a tiny percentage of maximum thrust crushed him back into his restraints at several gees, so he pulsed the main drive in fitful bursts to begin to match velocity with the convoy, ignoring the creaking restraints and aching in his joints that accompanied each burst. In a few minutes, the cruiser in the lead would scramble Coronachs – every second counted.

As the A-grav axis warmed up, he could push the throttle more and more before he felt the acceleration. Soon, he was rushing toward the trailing vessel of the convoy at a reassuringly terrifying speed more appropriate to strike-craft combat. “Odd Talos units target the leading hauler, even units target the one behind.” Being Talos One, he adjusted course to the forward vessel. The ungainly cargo and personnel carriers were nothing like the sleek, elegant cruiser which protected them – they looked crude and misshapen. “Arm hullbreakers.”

The even group, arrowing toward the nearer, trailing hauler, reached their target first. A series of “Munitions Away” notice-cards appeared on the status board, and the smart-glass view-panel highlighted the course and location of each of the big, slow hullbreaker missiles along with the vessels that launched them. A few scattered point defense lasers stitched the darkness, chasing the Magpies and their missiles, but at least one hullbreaker got through. A moment later, accompanied by the staccato flash of low-yield fission warhead, the ship simply came apart, its internal hull structures glowing furiously.

Frans tore his attention away from the wreck. Stevens had already armed Jenny Red’s lone hullbreaker, and the launch button glowed on the side of the control column. The second vessel, having gathered data from the demise of the first, would be better at picking off the vulnerable munitions. “Hold missiles on the first pass.” He sent. “Work over their point defense.”

“Talos lead, Coronachs incoming!”

There wasn’t time to check which pilot had sent the alert. A full cruiser full of Coronachs was more than ten Magpies could handle. “Scratch previous order. Dump hullbreakers at optimum range and let’s get out of here.”

The remaining gunships reached launch range and launched their payloads. Frans held his a second longer, then touched the launch button, and he felt Jenny Red lurch as the big missile lumbered away. The gunners fired streams of railshot ahead of it, though this had little chance of intercepting any point defense beams. As soon as he had verified the missile’s lock-on, Frans pulled away. The Coronachs would chase them for some distance, but a Magpie’s railguns could fire in any direction, the fragile Incarnation interceptors had no long-range weapon to counter with. A stern chase was, in fact, the only engagement in which the Magpie had a clear advantage over the Coronach, even when wildly outnumbered. After a few minutes of chase to dissuade another attack, they would return to their hangars.

“No joy, Lieutenant.” Ragno’s voice seemed all scowl, and it persuaded Frans to look at the tactical sensor display. Sure enough, the second hauler proceeded serenely onward, apparently undamaged. Its point defense had swatted all five hullbreakers.

“Next time, Rags.” Frans assured his crew-mate, staring at a rear-facing camera display, in which the hauler’s distortion halo still glowed. “He’ll come back loaded to the gills, and we’ll be here waiting for him.”