2949-05-04 –Tales from the Service: The Jericho Spearhead  

As we mentioned here last week, the Fifth Fleet engaged Incarnation forces in a third – and, I suspect, final – time in the Margaux system eleven calendar days before this feed item is dispatched. This Third Battle of Margaux was only slightly more successful than the first two.

With most of the ground-side weaponry overrun or depleted of ammunition in the months since the first battle, Admiral Zahariev elected for a simple frontal assault in a manner almost reminiscent of battles from the Terran-Rattanai War, with a cruiser screen far ahead supported by the long-range fire of the seven battlewagons of the Fifth Fleet to prevent Tyrant cruisers from closing to their preferred engagement range. Several cruiser captains sent us rather polemical complaints about this method, but it seems to have gotten the fleet into Margaux orbit with only light casualties.

Unfortunately, that’s where things seem to have gone wrong. In theory, an over-the-horizon missile and strike-squadron duel seemed to favor Fifth Fleet since Incarnation ships carry few missiles. In actuality, the Fifth Fleet’s strike assets, previously equal to the more numerous but less durable Coronach interceptors, critically failed to adjust to a change in enemy equipment and tactics. While these Coronachs could chew up strike squadrons and harass larger vessels, they could not previously pose a threat to heavy warships (their plasma weaponry, specialized for anti-strike combat, is not effective against thick armor-hulls). In this third battle at Margaux, the enemy deployed several squadrons of a larger attack craft capable of carrying ship-killing munitions, catching Fifth Fleet totally off-guard.

While the official Incarnation name for these bomber-analogues is not yet known, the datasphere has given them one – Jericho. Rumor has it that the name was coined by none other than Admiral Zahariev’s favorite adviser, Boszi Kirke-Moore.

Regardless of the truth of this rumor, the fleet was forced to take evasive action when this first attack by “Jericho” bombers, heavily escorted by Coronachs, penetrated the Confederated fleet screen simutaneous to a probing attack by at least a dozen Tyrant cruisers. Badly disrupted, the Confederated fleet was forced to withdraw only thirty hours after entering Margaux orbit.

This week's entry describes the experience of Sergeant Lada Hoekstra, a Magpie section commander who happened to be on fleet-guard patrol when this new form of attack first appeared. Though Hoekstra's daring attempt to break up the formation of the new Jerichos had little effect, her flight captured the day's best sensor recordings of the new type, and I'm sure her data is being scrutinized by Naval Intelligence.

Sergeant Lada Hoekstra watched the new set of icons appear on her display two and three at a time, and quickly lost count as more enemy strike units rose out of the pinkish cloudbank covering the planet below. “Never fails. Warm up the guns, we’ve got at least four full squadrons of air-breathers heading up.”

Swinging her Magpie gunship into a helical turn which would give her a visual on the enemy formation, she soon spotted the parallel lines of contrails left by the enemy strike units’ air-breathing engines. Before Margaux, Incarnation strike units hadn’t carried aero-engines of any kind, but the new breed of Coronach had demonstrated the enemy’s ability to learn on the job. Disposable airfoils and electric engine pods slowed the little one-man craft down considerably, but made them reasonably stable in atmospheric operation. Once these parts were no longer needed, they could be jettisoned as the Coronach broke free of the atmosphere and engaged its main gravitic drive.

Sure enough, as Lada watched, the contrails began to end abruptly as the rising swarm of vessels reached sufficiently rarefied air to switch to gravitic propulsion.

On the board in front of her, the indicators for the Magpie’s twin gunnery stations lit up as Silver and Kita ran their rapid-tracking multi-barrel railgun turrets through their pre-battle paces, verifying that the weapons were ready to give the incoming enemy a hostile reception. On the other three Magpies in her flight, six more gunners were probably doing the same thing while the other three pilots kept station behind Lada’s own rig.

Switching her console mode, Lada woke up the ungainly module mounted in the munition bay below her cockpit. Soon, the three-dimensional display gained a new set of symbols, indicating that the device was tracking targets and preparing a nasty surprise for the intruders. Orders were to shadow any attackers at a distance and harass with long-range railgun fire, but with such a large attack wave, she knew her flight would be chased off the main body in short order. Even with ten times more Magpies, she wouldn’t want to risk a close-quarters melee.

“Sarge, what are they doing?” Uberti, Lada’s wingman, sent over direct comms channel. “This isn’t like the other raids. Look at their trajectory. They must be entirely mad.”

Though Lada generally considered anyone who lived every day with a chip feeding Incarnation propaganda into their nervous system must be at least a little crazy, she saw what Uberti was referring to. Waves of Coronachs had staged raids on the Fifth Fleet almost every hour since it arrived in Margaux orbit with varying levels of success, but this group was different. It had come up out of the atmosphere far from any concentration of light warships which their weaponry could effectively damage, but it was one of the largest groups yet spotted.

Lada quickly plotted the raid group’s course, and shook her head in amazement. If they continued on their current course, the group would approach the heart of the Fifth Fleet battle line, a zone of space swarming with Magpies and thick with watchful fire support frigates designed to shred strike formations with their banks of railguns and laser phasebeams. “They’re suicidal. This has to be a diversion.”

Uberti made a grunt sound, unwilling to contradict his superior directly. “Burning a hundred strike rigs on a diversion? Even for Nate, that’s a bit crazy. Maybe they’re drones on autopilot?”

Lada glared at the pinpricks in her display. Their pre-flight briefing had mentioned that command expected the Incarnation to move in with its cruisers for a close-range engagement, but no glinting, dagger-point prows had yet appeared over the planet’s horizon. “Maybe they know something we don’t know.”

As the incoming formation approached, Lada brought her Magpie onto a parallel course at a safe distance where any pursuit would give her flight plenty of time to escape. The module under her rig’s nose announced that it was ready, and she flipped the safety cover off the center switch on her munitions board. The other three Magpies didn’t have the new weapon for this patrol mission, so hopefully the first one worked as advertised. “Recorders on. Let’s try R&D’s new toy.”

After counting to five to allow the other Magpie pilots to ready every recording device onboard, Lada flipped the switch. The Magpie lurched as explosive bolts fired, kicking the weapon out of its cradle and jolting the nose of the gunship in the opposite direction. Just as Lada reversed this movement, the weapon fired a short burst of its chemical thruster and sped away. In theory, it had locked onto most of the enemy strike craft, and would shortly make its presence known.

Evidently, the launch hadn’t gone unnoticed. A group of eight Coronachs peeled off the main formation and headed towards Lana and her compatriots. Lana highlighted them on her display. “Weapons free. Give these guys reasons to be somewhere else.”

The Magpie vibrated as four railgun barrels began spewing glowing slugs into the path of the still-distant interceptors. A moment later, the tooth-rattling buzz of the big belly-mount railgun added its voice and its own stream of orange motes. A flight of four Magpies couldn’t keep up sustained suppressive fire for very long, but as long as the ammunition held out, the little launches keep a nearly impenetrable cloud of relativistic-speed projectiles between themselves and any opponent.

Just as the guns fell silent to cool off and load more ferromagnetic slugs, Lada’s console pinged. The weapon she’d fired off had reached its effective range. A moment later, two quick flashes lit up the sky in the direction of the enemy formation, and two blips vanished from the board.

“Well that was a bit underwhelming.” Lada quickly delegated the suppressive fire task to Silver so she could focus on the new weapon’s effect. “Only two?”

As if to answer her, three additional Coronachs went dark, and most of the rest of the formation began to break up and take evasive action. It wouldn’t help them; the weapon Lada had fired was still tracking its targets. A sixth Coronach flashed into cinders in the void as a low-power laser pulsed outward from the tumbling weapon module, cutting through the thin skin of the Incarnation interceptor.

Lada switched one of her console panes to the camera feed from the weapon’s targeting system. Though the little camera, swiveling rapidly to follow targets, rarely stopped on anything long enough for the human eye to focus, Lada liked to think the constant blur of motion from the weapon reflected the confusion it was causing in the enemy group.

This sense of satisfaction lasted only long enough for the first of the arrowhead shapes to flit across the screen, however. Lada paused the video, rolled it back, then played it again slowly. The vessel that rolled into view was clearly no Coronach, but neither was it any form of Confederated strike craft. Unconcerned with this, the weapon’s simple targeting system fired its phasebeam at the squat, angular vehicle, registered a hit, and moved on, assuming that a hit meant a kill even though nothing had vanished from the display. Whatever the shape was, it was too durable to be bothered by the overcharged point defense laser in the experimental weapon.

“See that central group? They didn’t go evasive.” Uberti, Lada realized, hadn’t been tapped into the weapon’s visual feed. “They haven’t lost one either.”

Lada glanced in the direction the enemy was heading – right for the heart of the battle line. She suspected she knew now what the game was. “Kita, get on the comms and tell anyone who will listen that we’re not just dealing with Coronachs out here. These are something new.”

“What do you mean-”

Lada cut away from the comms channel before Kita could finish his inane question; she knew he’d heard her. “We’re going in for that central group.”

“Going in, Sarge? Are you nuts? There are at least a hundred-”

Lada cut Uberti’s comm with a swift jab at her override controls. In theory, a flight of a few dozen of some new strike variant shouldn’t pose a threat to the battle line, but if they didn’t, the Incarnation using them that way didn’t make much sense. Pulling on the controls, she lined up her Magpie on an intercept course with the odd enemy formation. “One pass at high speed to break them up, then we’re out for home. Keep your lenses and guns rolling and don’t stop for anything.”