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

Operation Firmament. By now you’ve already heard this name; by now Ashton and all your other favorite datasphere personalities have discussed its importance in great detail since Fifth Fleet announced the battle to the media six days ago. This, it seems, is our first unequivocal victory of this already years-long war. Most of Maribel seems to have not stopped celebrating it.

Perhaps you, too, have seen the vid-log snippets which have been bouncing around: the glinting hulls of the cruisers reflecting the light of their salvos, the massive flashing swirl of a strike-craft brawl between a dozen squadrons on either side, and the spectacular explosion of one of the Incarnation tyrants certainly make good vidcast content.

I have talked to some spacers who were there, and the victory is perhaps not as glorious as we might prefer to think. It is, however, no longer the place of this embed team to discuss the operations of Fifth Fleet. As of the twenty-third of February, when we came aboard the Ashkelon, we have been detached from that fleet organization entirely, along with the rest of the ship’s complement. As such, most of my usual official channels into Fifth Fleet’s upper command hierarchy have been cut for the moment.

Ashkelon is perhaps the newest capital unit in the Confederated Navy, having just finished its shakedown late last year, and I am struck by how much larger than Saint-Lô it is. The ship was, I hear, only assigned to Fifth Fleet long enough to play its bit role in Operation Firmament alongside its sister Maribel, and it, with us aboard, is soon to depart on a new assignment as of this writing.

The ship’s skipper is one captain Arik Mendoza. I fear he is far less content with our presence than Captain Liao was; he is young for a battleship captain, and likely eager to see the action denied his crew during Fortitude.

The spherical tac-plot projected above the gunship’s center console quickly became a useless tangle of swirling, multicolored blips, akin to a recently-shaken jar of Earth fireflies, and Lieutenant Wynn Richards kept his eyes on the flashing, sparking expanse of space directly ahead, and at the glittering, stylus-sized spearpoint in the middle of that view. Several more such sinister shapes dotted the void, forming three distinct clusters, each group surrounded by stabbing weapons fire and blossoming explosions.

Somewhere behind him, the two rapid-fire quad-railgun turrets projecting from the Magpie gunship’s sides were shaking the whole ship with their tooth-jarring rattle. Probably, Sullivan and Iwai each had a somewhat less cluttered, and thus somewhat more useful, view of the battlespace than Wynn did, and they were firing away at any target of opportunity without regards to the bigger picture visible from up front. No doubt they’d be alarmed if they knew what their section of three gunships had just been ordered to do, and Wynn certainly wasn’t going to alarm them unnecessarily. After all, if they were going to die, it would be suddenly, and there would be little for the gunners to do about it they weren’t already doing.

Flipping up the cover over one of the few non-dynamic controls in the entire cockpit, Wynn hovered his finger over a series of colored buttons. His was one of a few dozen Magpies modified before the battle with some decidedly non-standard hardware, and it was this hardware which the wires trailing out from the hard-panel and secured along the corner of the console eventually connected. “Two is ready, Lead.”

“Three, ready.”

“Slave to my helm.” Raman Beck, the section leader, instructed. Wynn held down a white button until its associated light came on, then tapped the green button next to it and released the controls with his other hand as the computer began taking commands from Beck’s controls.

“Sullivan, Iwai, check your restraints.” Wynn called into his onboard comms circuit. Most likely a secure harness and crash-padded station wouldn’t help them much if the new hardware went awry or if they ran into stray fire from one of the half-dozen intense sub-engagements whirling nearby, but it was the only hint he dared offer them.

“Arm TR-XE.” Beck called out.

Wynn pressed a yellow button until its associated light began to blink, and the hum of the gunship’s little reactor changed tenor as the TR-XE module haphazardly installed below the cockpit began to draw electricity into its capacitors. He dared not think about what would happen to him if a single piece of shrapnel or a single railgun slug happened to pierce those capacitors, barely half a meter below his chair as they were.

As the power indicators on the unit crept up toward maximum, Beck made a few tiny course adjustments. For the moment, the trio of ships was not being harassed by any of the two hundred or so enemy Coronach interceptors which more than a hundred Magpies and at least thirty Pumas were dueling in all directions, and Wynn hoped that six steady streams of railshot toward the nearest enemy units would dissuade anyone from trying to change this. They’d already fought their way into, then out of, one swirling melee in the last hour, and someone in Command had decided that the strike-craft engagement was going well enough to try a few dirty tricks.

Without warning, a damaged Magpie tore out of one of the nearest swirling engagements and thundered directly across the electronically locked paths of Wynn, Beck, and Lazarov. Behind it, a pair of sleek Coronachs closed in to finish off their wounded prey. Without thinking, Wynn disengaged the helm-slave and rolled to give both his gunners a clear shot at the Coronachs. Their fire, combined with that of one of Beck’s gunners, convinced the Coronachs to break off, and the damaged Magpie limped off to brave the long trek back to its mothership alone.

Without waiting for Beck’s order, Wynn re-slaved his helm to the lead ship. No doubt he’d get an earful for his hasty decision in the post-action briefing, but if it gave another crew even a tiny chance to make it home, he’d be content to endure Beck’s browbeating.

A moment after he did, the TR-XE system chimed its full-charge alert, and Beck flipped the master switch on his own console, changing the indicator lights from yellow to amber. “Engaging in five seconds.” Beck announced. “Four. Three. Two. One.”

Wynn tensed as the countdown reached zero, and his commander pressed another button. At once, the stored charge below him in the TR-XE module crackled along high-voltage conduits into a series of folder nodes, and the view ahead vanished into a coruscating swirl of blue and violet energy, turning a black more perfect than any void in its center.

Wynn flinched, but by the time his muscles reacted, the Magpie had already flown into the swirling vortex, and out the other side. The momentary feeling of being twisted in several directions that didn’t normally exist was gone even before his hands once again grabbed the control stick.

“Two is clear.” Wynn looked down at his tactical plot, which was now distinctly less populated and more comprehensible, even if only two pips within were the blue-green of friendly units. With their helms slaved and their starting formation so tight, the trio of gunships had emerged from their jaunt through a fold in the fabric of space-time barely a thousand kilometers from each other, rather than the tens of thousands one might have expected otherwise. “Forming up. What’s next, Lead?”