2947-09-17 – Tales from the Service: The Siege of Berkant
I was expecting Saint-Lô to travel for many days before emerging at the edge of a destination system, but we made only three jumps – twenty-two hours total travel time. This being the case, and seeing that we were within only a few light-minutes of the local HyperCast relay station, I hurriedly cancelled the automatic-post story I’d prepared for our time in the dark. With the captain’s permission, I spent some time sitting as an observer in the Combat Information Center.
The fact that the relay is still active is strange, but I’m not about to miss the opportunity to do what I came aboard this ship to do – namely, cover the war effort. You would think that an aggressor planning to stay in-system for a sustained assault would slag the thing to prevent Fifth Fleet high command from gaining intelligence about their actions in the clear, but the Incarnation left it alone for at least two full days.
As the title of this feed item implies, our short trip took us to Berkant, a rather underpopulated but biologically fertile Frontier world which has graced this feed before, most notably as the site of several stories about Faye and Junia (not real names) and their odd xenosapient friend Sapphire.
Captain Liao watched as the system resolved in his combat information center’s room-scale holo-display. In the middle, directly above the floor projector lens, the system’s white-dwarf primary shone brighter than the overhead lighting, with the faint dotted lines of the three planets’ orbits extending halfway to the outer walls of the vast compartment. The first planet of the system was a “hot Jupiter” hell-sphere of tortured clouds and burning cyclones, and the third a frozen ice-ball in a steeply elliptical orbit, but the second – the world Berkant from which the system derived its name – carried life, including two million citizens of the Confederated Worlds.
Reports were still coming in from the situation around the life-bearing world, but Liao already could see the outlines of the situation. Sparkling shards of debris in three distinct rings had been identified around the planet, and he knew better than to hope that even one of them was the result of disaster befalling one of the five Tyrant cruisers which had been reported in the system. Other than a single aging destroyer and a mercenary strike carrier, Berkant had been defenseless when the Incarnation had showed up with plans to stay.
“We are in contact with groundside system authority.” The comms chief’s voice carried into CIC though she was two hundred meters away at the forward communications annex. “Transmission delay, twenty-nine minutes one way. They confirm that Olvir Zdrakov was destroyed in orbit after a short exchange. The merc carrier launched its birds and then left orbit. They lost tracking on its drive signature a few hours later.”
“Thank you, Commander.” Liao watched the hashed-blue “unknown” symbols on the asset board to his left switch to black. The two garrison ships were of dubious value to his force in any case, but the loss of perhaps one hundred twenty brave spacers still stung. “Sensors, where is Nate?”
The sensor-systems chief had no answers, but he did his best. “Still putting the pieces together, Captain. Wherever they are, their drives are not burning.”
Five cruisers – Nate's biggest attack force to date – didn't just vanish, and Liao knew they hadn’t had time since last being spotted in planetary orbit to reach the hyper limit. “Probably hiding in those debris rings. Any idea what those were?”
“Planetside data payload reports them as Zdrakov, their main orbital station, and a hauler who had a very bad day. Most of the lesser infrastructure is still intact.”
One hundred twenty was likely an underestimate as to the losses, then. Liao shook his head; the hauler and station had been defenseless. There had been no reason for the Incarnation cruisers to fire on them. “Time to planetary orbit?”
“Fifty hours at full acceleration.” The navigator’s course already glowed on the display.
Liao set his jaw and stared at the board, wondering where he’d put his ships, if he were in command of five fast, well-armed but poorly protected heavy cruisers. Without the sensor arrays on the station, the groundside spaceport couldn’t track the invaders – the enemy had almost thirty hours of free maneuver time during which the colonists on Berkant could detect their drive signatures, but not pinpoint their locations. Thirty hours was a long time; time enough for Nate to pick off every piece of orbital hardware, if destruction was their objective.
“Re-entry fires on the planet.” The sensors station reported crisply. “Big chunks of the station, most likely.”
Liao got the sense he was being watched, and not by the odd little datacast reporter shadowing him for the Berkant operation. “All ships, fit gunships for a system sweep and launch when ready.” Using the force’s fifty-odd strike gunships – a mix of Magpies and older Jackdaws – to sweep the system would reduce his offensive power, but he preferred to find the enemy before they got in close. Anyone who’d seen the intelligence reports about Incanration Tyrant cruisers knew they were apparently kittens in long-range slugfests, but fearsome combatants if their shorter-ranged energy weapons could be used up close.
“Contact!” The defense-gunnery officer’s voice accompanied a new symbol on the board. “A flight of Coronachs just hot-started two thousand klicks ahead of Safira Sharma.”
In the vastness of even a small planetary system like Berkant, two thousand kilometers was far closer than Liao was comfortable with. If the Tyrants had appeared at that range, the lead cruiser probably would never have known what hit it.
“They knew we’d be coming from Maribel. Probably set them across all the probable inbound vectors in case we tried a cold approach.” Liao watched the symbols boost away on a perpendicular vector. Their pilots knew only too well that the vast force would never detach a fast warship to chase four little strike interceptors, and that Magpie gunships had no hope of catching them. “With any luck, Nate has his strike elements scattered all over the system.” Even as he said it, he knew better. Incarnation ships carried vast quantities of the tiny, agile Coronachs, each piloted by a cybernetically-tweaked counterhuman literally optimized for the job. Their commander would never disperse a significant percentage of that force on picket duty just before a battle.
“Telescopes just made one Tyrant on station at the planetary L3.” The sensors officer almost crowed his success as the red symbol appeared on the board.
Liao frowned. He’d just concluded that the enemy would be crazy to disperse his force. Why would one of the five cruisers operate by itself? “Just one?”
“Confirmed, Captain. One Tyrant at Berkant Lagrange Three.”
Captain Liao frowned. The lone cruiser was one of two things – it was either bait for a trap, or it was a challenge. Of the two, his bet was on it being a challenge. “Ignore the ship at L3. Course to planetary orbit.”
Challenge or bait, Saint-Lô and her squadron would not be able to accept either for at least thirty hours. “Maintain alert status, but rotate crews every four hours. This is going to be a long haul.”