2948-11-24 – Tales from the Service: Operation Layman at Margaux

Admiral Zahariev and the Fifth Fleet have once again engaged the enemy fleet over Margaux in recent days. 

While the results of this Second Battle of Margaux are not as positive as might be expected, as the Incarnation still holds the system, reports indicate high losses inflicted on their force in the battle, in vast excess to the losses inflicted on the Fifth Fleet. Furthermore, while the battle was ongoing, an extensive resupply operation was conducted to provide needed spare parts, munitions, and medical equipment to the garrison on the Ishkawa Line, and nine of the twelve haulers which carried out this resupply escaped the system loaded with combat wounded and civilian evacuees.

The greatest success in this battle was in a diversionary trap which is rumored to be the brainchild of Captain Kirke-Moore, Admiral Zahariev’s close adviser. This diversion succeeded in pulling eight Tyrants away from the main action and destroying two of them, damaging a reported four others sufficiently to put them out of action, all for the loss of three haulers and a few frigates, plus a light cruiser damaged. While losses in the main engagement were closer to even, Confederated losses were still relatively light, as most ships put out of action were able to retreat from the field.

Commander Jorg Geier, skipper of one of the haulers involved in this clever diversion, was allowed by Naval Intelligence to describe his experiences to this media team.

Austen Levitt had never been better escorted in her short career as a Navy logistics hauler, but its skipper Jorg Geier couldn’t help but feel uneasy as he surveyed the system map pulled off the fleet command network, watching the swarm of bright red indicators gathering in high Margaux orbit. The enemy fleet besieging the planet had a numerical advantage over the cruisers and battlewagons of the Fifth Fleet, and he didn’t appreciate being part of the diversion meant to split this force.

Jorg glanced at the corner of his bridge display where the standing orders for his vessel appeared, noting that they still had not changed. Following the cruiser Bandertail as closely as its helmsman dared, with a pair of point-defense frigates holding station off the stern, Levitt was well-protected from enemy long-range missiles and strike-craft raids. The other dozen-odd haulers participating in the operation were similarly well protected. Either the Incarnation commander would divide his force and dedicate cruisers to chasing down the haulers and their formidable screen, or the logistics squadron would reach Margaux and begin unloading supplies unmolested while the rest of the battle unfolded.

Though the admiral’s plan doubtless worked better if the enemy fleet divided to engage both Confederated formations, Jorg hoped it wouldn’t. The battlewagons and heavy cruisers of the main Fifth Fleet formation were tough ships; they could withstand close-range duels with Tyrant cruisers much better than a lumbering hauler, even one escorted by almost twice its tonnage of lighter warships.

Bandertail reports strike craft moving to intercept.” Deering, the officer manning Levitt’s comms station, did not sound as concerned as Jorg felt. “Looks like a probing attack. We’re to stay on course.”

Jorg switched his display to a tactical map which displayed the tiny wireframes of Levitt and its three escorts, as well as the approaching Coronachs. The light, agile interceptors were quite capable of damaging a cruiser’s more vulnerable equipment, and would have no trouble slicing a hauler’s unprotected hull to ribbons.

Fortunately, Levitt had not come to Margaux unprotected. Light railgun batteries on Bandertail and the two frigates opened up on the enemy squadrons, and cones of flashing orange swept like virtual searchlights across intervening space as clouds of high-velocity ferroceramic projectiles sought to entrap or scatter the approaching formations. Jorg had seen a railgun battery firing with his own eyes, once – the glowing streams of superheated death pouring forth from dozens of fast-tracking barrels had seemed impossible to evade at the time, but now, protected by the fire of multiple batteries on three warships, he wasn’t feeling so sure.

The enemy strike-craft group split into numerous smaller groups as the expanding orange cones reached out to meet it, each group dashing in a different direction. A few groups flew into the cones and abruptly vanished – the Coronach pilots could probably only guess where the Navy gunners had directed their guns, and some inevitably guessed wrong – but the rest, likely able to detect the hot projectiles as they passed close by, now knew where the guns were pointed, and began to more confidently weave between the converging streams of railshot.

A few green arrows sallied forth from the wireframe of Bandertail as the cruiser’s squadron of Magpie gunships launched to join the fight. Jorg often envied the Magpie crews’ role in the war; their fate was in their own hands. They didn’t have to crew a plodding, unarmed tin can which relied on others for its safety.

“Enemy cruiser formation is splitting.” This time, Deering seemed nervous. “Eight-cruiser formation headed our way.”

“Steady.” Jorg tried to project a confidence he didn’t feel. Admiral Zahariev’s plan was working; the main formation now had eight fewer Tyrants to deal with. “We’re more than an hour out. They’re not committed yet.” The ten light cruisers and more than two dozen frigates and destroyers of the diversion column would probably not be enough to fend off the enemy detachment, but that too was part of the plan; after all, the diversion wouldn’t be very effective if it looked too tough to crack. “The order will go out when it’s time.”

Closer to hand, orange cones of railshot converged on a trio of Coronachs, and they winked off the board. Roughly half the enemy strike interceptors were still operational, and they seemed to be struggling to approach closer to their targets through the defensive fire. Jorg noticed a few other small-scale strike probes testing the line behind Levitt, receiving roughly the same treatment. Based on the briefing, these relative few were not the bulk of the enemy strike strength; most of the Coronachs had not revealed themselves, as they were probably already in the field but holding back to support the main action. The ability of Incarnation strike pilots to sit in their cramped cockpits for hours or even days at a time without going stir-crazy never failed to amaze Jorg – at least in a Magpie, one could unbuckle and move around, and there was even a narrow crawlspace in the crew compartment where one person at a time could sleep.

The minutes ticked past, and while the Coronach raiders continued to harry the hauler column, none got even close enough for the Magpies to get involved. Jorg told himself to relax; after all, the cruisers were still hours away, and he would be quite safe if things went according to plan. The fact that the last action over Margaux had deviated rather spectacularly from the plan did make it somewhat difficult to convince his nerves of this. Jorg, with little to do from the skipper’s console, got up and fetched coffee for his bridge crew, more in hopes that walking around would soothe his nerves than out of any altruistic intentions.

Deering switched the main display to a status board with a timer ticking down from fifteen minutes shortly after Jorg had regained his seat. “Approaching intercept point of no return.” That would be the point beyond which the Tyrants probably wouldn’t be able to rejoin the main body in time for a battle, even with their engines providing full acceleration. The best they could do to help the main Incarnation force if they continued to pursue the hauler column beyond that point would be to flash through the middle of the battle at high velocity, trading one close-range volley with each ship they passed. A few minutes after that point, Jorg and the rest of the hauler skippers would order the activation of the surprise which they had fitted in deep-space after leaving Maribel.

“Come on, you bastards.” Jorg muttered. “Let’s dance.”

As the timer approached zero, a tense silence filled Levitt’s bridge. At any moment, they knew, the commander of the detachment might sense the trap and rejoin the larger force in time for the main battle. Even as the timer flashed zero and vanished, the tension remained; the performance characteristics of Tyrants used to calculate the point of no return were best-guesses, so plenty of margin for error had to be given.

Thirty seconds after the point of no return, Jorg switched on his comm. “Intercepting force is committed. Prepare the Layman.”

Deep in the belly of the hauler, Jorg imagined the three Navy munitions techs springing into action, scurrying around to prepare the two massive fission-warhead capital torpedoes for launch. Levitt and the other similarly equipped haulers had no systems capable of guiding these weapons; once they were pushed out of a cargo hatch by hydraulic rams, fire control systems aboard the frigate Oscar Glanville in the center of the line would take over to arm and guide them.

“Message from Glanville.” Deering announced. “They’ve sent arming codes. Launch in eight minutes.”

Jorg nodded, adding his own arming code to the code sent by Glanville before sending the result down to the munitions techs. The enemy ships would still be some distance away in eight minutes, but that was fine – the dumped torpedoes, designed to be fired from their motherships by bulky launch systems, would need some time to drift away from the formation before their gravitic drives could be used safely. Now that the course of events was set, he felt less nervous. The torpedoes probably wouldn’t destroy the Tyrants outright, but even forcing two or three out of the fight would turn the odds completely in favor of the escort group.

The timer ticked down toward zero, and the Tyrants on the plot inched closer as the remaining strike raiders peeled off to regroup.

At the designated time, Jorg opened his comms circuit to order the launch, but before he could speak, Levitt shuddered with the force of two massive payloads being shoved out an airlock. Robbed of his last active role in the battle – perhaps the war – Jorg sat back in his chair and waited nervously for the real fireworks to start.