2947-07-02 – Tales from the Service: To Strafe a Sagittarian
Welcome to the first entry in Tales from the Service, the replacement feature for Tales from the Inbox for the duration of Sagittarian hostilities.
Nojus and Koloman joined Sadie, Toal, and myself here at Håkøya yesterday, and we began our Naval Media Corps certification course. Interestingly enough, Toal told me that he went through this certification in order to embed during the Brushfire War, but hostilities ended before he could reach the conflict zone. Obviously, NMC needs to put him through the certification all over again; press rules for Brushfire were different than they are here.
After our day of training today, we caught a shuttle to the cruiser Olek Mihaylov, where we were allowed to observe a battle drill to know what we were getting into. The efficiency of Navy professionals was quite impressive. After the drill, we ate in the officers’ mess, and Commander Cristian Gray of the ship’s attached gunship squadron proved quite a source of stories. Though Mihaylov has yet to encounter Sagittarians, Cdr. Gray’s five-boat squadron has only recently transferred onboard from the garrison station at Palmisano, where a Sagittarian cruiser-analogue made a rather spectacular raid on the orbital infrastructure, destroying a refinery station and killing thirty. Gray’s squadron suffered no losses, but he also assures me they did no real damage to the attacker.
His story (backed up by a formal report and a recording which I have since seen parts of) is interesting because it gives his personal account of what it is like to go head to head with the Sagittarians. His observation that their point defense weapons are not very effective against Navy strike ships is interesting, but so is his equal insistence that Navy strike weapons are totally ineffective against Sagittarian ships of the most well-known type.
The pre-launch ready klaxon wailed in Cristian’s ears, and he scanned the readouts in front of him for the final time. The ready indicators for Tamara’s and Angelos’s gunnery stations held steady and green; everything was as ready as it could be.
Cristian flipped the last safety switch, and the hangar launch system took over, lifting the three spacers and Foxhound, their eighty-ton AG-36 Magpie gunship, to the catapult deck. One of the advantages of garrison duty was that a Naval field station always carried magnetic catapults for its squadrons; being fired from an over-sized missile launch rail was far more exhilarating than wobbling out of a too-small hangar with a tense set of thruster burns.
As the lead ship of the squadron, Cristian always launched first. The readiness klaxon went silent, and was followed by the thud of the catapult clamps latching onto his boat and the steady tone of the launch warning. He put his head back in the crash-padded cockpit seat just in time to be crushed into the padding by eight gees of acceleration. In front of him, the square of empty space outside the hangar’s mouth yawned wide, then swallowed the Magpie. As soon as it had started, the acceleration was gone.
“Launch complete.” Cristian engaged manual control and engaged the drive’s lesser acceleration. Behind him, the other four Magpies of his squadron launched one after another and formed up on his flanks.
“Foxhound, target heading remains unchanged.” The young strike controller on the station sounded nervous, and Cristian didn’t blame her. It wasn’t every day a cruiser-sized alien ship blazed into a Frontier system on a high-speed pass. “Still heading for the refinery.”
“Still no response?” Cristian put himself on an intercept course, watching the displays to make sure the other four gunships copied the maneuver. The garrison had been hailing the intruder for some time, without result, and could only interpret its behavior as hostile.
“No response. Command authorization to fire if fired upon.”
“Roger, Control.” Cristian flipped the levers to power Foxhound’s weapons. Behind him, the pilots of the other four gunships powered their own weapons.
That the ship was of a kind with the aggressive wanderers seen across the Sagittarius Gap was only too clear from its hull profile and drive signature. There was no telling what sort of weaponry or defensive systems the ship employed; his flight might run into a curtain of fire at any moment. Even if they didn’t, five gunships wasn’t much of a threat to anything of cruiser size; all the weapons of all five Magpies would probably do little more than annoy the aggressor while it slagged local installations. They were, unfortunately, almost all the Navy had in Palmisano.
As the distance closed, Cristian pulled up a wire-frame of the intruder. Ops on the station had done its best to highlight probable weapons emplacements and other identifiable features, but its sleek design was so alien that their notations remained little but guesswork. No Confederated Worlds vessel had yet exchanged fire with a Sagittarian cruiser-analogue and survived the ordeal. “Let’s do this at high rel-V.” He traced a line up one side of the wire-frame, following a cranny between two titanic plates of what were probably an armored outer hull. “Close to the hull as we can.” Flying close to the big ship was dangerous, but if the alien’s point defenses were anything like Terran systems, it would be less effective
“They’ll shoot at us for sure if we get that close.” Lyuben, Cristian’s second in command, observed.
“Then shoot back. They don’t pay us extra to bring ordinance back to the station.” The more annoying the squadron was, the better; they might even be sufficiently nettlesome to save most of the civilian orbital industry.
“Foxhound, be advised.” The controller’s excitable voice returned as the big, blue-grey hull of the intruder began to loom large ahead. “Thermal signature suggests possible weapons fire. No scatter cone.”
“Understood, Control.” Cristian immediately adjusted his heading, and the rest of the squadron followed, avoiding whatever might have been fired into their path. No scatter cone meant that whatever the ship had done, it hadn’t fired railguns, as a Terran ship would do to dissuade incoming strike launches. “Let me know if you can confirm that.”
Confirmation came moments later when one of the orbital tugs around the refinery exploded, its death-fire blooming silently over the limb of the planet below. “They’re shooting.” Cristian knew most of the tugs were remotely operated, but they were still expensive machines. “That got on target fast.”
“Some sort of energy beam.” The strike controller confirmed. “Light speed time to target, but it probably took several seconds to punch through the hull.”
“Time to target, forty seconds. Watch your hull sensors.” There was no hope of dodging an energy weapon at such close ranges, but if it took even half a second to burn through a hull, the agile gunships could roll out of the beam before suffering serious damage.
The Sagittarian filled the forward viewscreen now, and Cristian picked out the canyon-like hollow which he meant to follow on his run. No lights glowed out from the shadowed parts of the ship, and the part of its hull in the light seemed to glow with elfin light, as if it was a construct of magic rather than engineering.
“Beam just grazed me, lead.” Blondie, one of the other pilots, sounded shaken as her Magpie spiraled briefly out of formation, then slowly worked its way back into position. “Minor damage.”
Cristian opened his comms to reply, but a shrieking sensor alert encouraged him to pull out of the path of another beam before it could fry Foxhound. A salvo of blue-white projectiles erupted from the invader’s hull, fired toward the refinery. He did his best not to focus on the lives of the refinery crew. “Twenty seconds. Guns free.”
Behind him, Cristian felt more than heard the gun emplacements on the gunship’s port and starboard flanks spin into position, facing toward where the Sagittarian’s hull would shortly be. Tamara and Angelos would be disciplined and shoot only at things that looked vulnerable, but the greenhorn gunners on Blondie’s and Elcin’s rigs would probably unload their ordinance more randomly.
“Ten seconds.” Again, he wheeled out of an energy beam, watching the squadron briefly scatter in all directions on the monitors.
He’d meant to do a five-second countdown to weapons range, but a series of chasing beams kept him busy until he dove into the canyon between the titanic armor sections on the Sagittarian ship’s hull. The chatter of railshot and the bass thunder of plasma cannon from the gunners’ positions competed for the right to deafen Cristian first, with the intermittent shriek of hull sensor alarms indicating where various beam emplacements briefly found him.
The bow to stern run lasted only three seconds, and Cristian wheeled Foxhound around for a second in time to see the refinery station, spouting fire and debris, break in half. The Sagittarian hadn’t slowed to enter orbit; its velocity was already carrying it away from the planet. There was no sign of damage from the ordinance his squadron had unloaded. “Dammit.”
“Foxhound, it’s control. They’re leaving. Break off pursuit and perform search and rescue.”
“Priority order, Commander.” This time, it wasn’t the nervous strike controller’s voice, but the stern bark of the garrison commander. “Civilian lives are at stake. Pick up survivors from the refinery.”
Cristian ground his teeth. He knew his squadron hadn’t done any real damage to the cruiser with only one pass – but he also knew there was little chance of doing more with a second. “Roger, control. Search and rescue.”