2951-03-01 – Tales from the Service: The Firmament Dive

Lieutenant Wynn Richards closed in on Beck’s Magpie until the other vessel was visible directly ahead. Though they all had their exterior lights disabled, Wynn could still make out the sleek, swept-back outline of the engine housing and turret-tipped wing sponsons against the distant stars.

Ahead of Lead, the sinister spearhead of an Incarnation cruiser loomed seemingly close enough to touch, though it was still hundreds of kilometers away. Its pulse-beam emitters spat death toward an unseen target off to one side, the beams visible only as a stream of faint sparkling motes where the beams annihilated dust and battle debris along their path.

“Interceptors are starting to vector in.” Kariuki, the pilot of Three, sounded shaken, and Wynn wondered if she’d weathered the TR-XE jaunt worse than he had. Short-ranged faster-than-light travel was a risky and imprecise business at the best of times, and the middle of a battle was far from the best of times. Normally, the Confederated Navy avoided use of such machines on combat units, but they’d authorized a trial-run of three gunships equipped with off-the-shelf mercenary-grade TR-XE technology this time. So far, that trial was going suspiciously well.

“They’re minutes out. Watch out for battery fire.” Beck changed course and cranked up his drive to maximum acceleration. Wynn and Kariuki, following close behind, did the same. “Our target is the ventral forward hull. If intel is right, that’s where their star drive capacitors are.”

Wynn turned to the haphazardly-installed control board to his left and disengaged the switches that fed power to the TR-XE module below the cockpit. The capacitors, drained by the jaunt, were dead weight now, but no provision had been made to jettison the bulky equipment.

By the same token, a similar, but much larger, bank of capacitors was needed to charge the star drive of any large vessel, and those capacitors were as much liability while fully charged as those aboard a diminutive Magpie gunship. The Incarnation vessels engaged in the battle hadn’t planned for a fight; they’d been ambushed while preparing for a jump out to another system. If the timing of their attack was right, those capacitors were still mostly full, and thus incredibly vulnerable. There was no safe way to discharge such a large electric potential aboard a starship, certainly not quickly.

A warning alert beeped, calling Wynn’s attention back to the middle of his console. “Fire control is attempting a lock.”

“Going evasive.” Beck barely waited to finish speaking before he pulled his Magpie into a tight roll and banked off to one side. Wynn went another way, and Kariuki a third, weaving and juking nearly at random to prolong the lock-on as long as possible. Incarnation fire control computers were good, but they were highly automated, with very few gunners operating a large number of guns. When presented with several widely distributed, small, evasive targets, they could sometimes struggle to prioritize.

“Point defense is firing.”

Wynn glanced at the spherical plot, where short-lived streams of plasma arced outward from the fast-tracking weapons on the Tyrant’s flank. “Looks like a random pattern. How lucky are we feeling?”

“Not lucky enough to win the plot on this run.” Kariuki laughed in the usual overly-tense way she did when the shooting started. “Following you down, Lead.”

Down, of course, meant the target. By convention that supposedly dated back to the earliest days of pilots soaring above Old Earth and dropping explosives on surface-bound targets, whenever a pilot targeted a less-mobile enemy with an attack run, that enemy was always “down” even when there was no gravity well to define any particular “down.”

As the only three Magpies in a wide, otherwise empty stretch of void with no interceptors to trouble them, the trio had no need of formation flying and no trouble evading target locks while they closed the distance with the Incarnation ship. Only when the range had shrunk to barely thirty kilometers, Wynn knew, would their evasive task become particularly hard. Short of taking a lucky shot from one of nearly a hundred randomly-firing plasma turrets, they’d all reach that distance before the targeting system could get and hold a lock on them.

That close, he knew, things would really begin to get interesting.

As of this posting, Ashkelon is in transit to a new area of operations; we cannot say which one for security reasons until we arrive. As such, this continuation of last week’s entry was scheduled much longer in advance than usual, with the ship expecting to be outside of Hypercast relay range for several days.

Our quarters aboard ship are quite spacious compared to what we had previously; while no luxury liner, Ashkelon’s greater size and smaller crew compliment than older battleships certainly does result in everyone enjoying more room to stretch out. The accommodations for most personnel are more comparable to those aboard patrol cruisers than aboard battle line units. No doubt this is a feature intended to improve morale on long cruises out of port, but we appreciate it all the same.