2947-07-30 – Tales from the Service: Tyrant in the Mist
This week, Nojus and I crossed to the Maribel system. Though I dispatch this feed item from my bunk aboard a personnel carrier, we got our first proper look at the ship we’ll be embedded aboard, the battleship Saint-Lô. We will dock at the fleet service station and transfer aboard Saint-Lô in about five shifts, give or take any wait for berthing availability at the station.
Our ship is hardly the newest hull in the fleet; she was laid down only a few years after the end of the Terran-Rattanai War. In fact, I did some research – the average age of the hulls in the Fifth Fleet’s heavy core is fifty-three years. Most of these ships are older than I am – and some of them, including ours, are even older than Nojus!
Despite their age, the battlewagons of Fifth Fleet are all freshly modernized, carrying the best weaponry and defensive systems available anywhere. Most of the fleet units, and all of its heavy elements, have been refitted in the last five years.
Several of you have submitted similar accounts to that of Price posted last week. Interestingly enough, some of the more detailed examples are dated months ago. The pattern is the same – a mysterious person with visible counter-human alterations (usually head implants) infiltrates a civilian (or mercenary) installation or vessel, commits sabotage, and escapes. Nanotechnological weaponry is used in most stories, and in some it is used in spaces with nanoparticle alarms, only triggering the alarms when the weaponry is used.
The sabotage committed is varied – ships are crippled, manufacturing is halted, nutrient slurry fouled, computers corrupted, and so on. It seems almost entirely random, almost as if the Ladeonists – I can think of no other likely culprit for this activity, even if this type of agent is a new innovation for them – have been quietly testing the infrastructure of the Frontier in preparation for a major uprising here.
Our Naval Intelligence representatives are interested in this trend, as am I; your submissions have been shared with them, and I am sifting through looking for one or two stellar examples to post in this space.
This week’s account comes from a destroyer skipper whose cabin adjoined mine in transit. She had just returned from an action on the far side of the Gap which didn’t go her way, but it never could have. Most of the bridge crew survived to be picked up from the ruined ship by a service vessel which arrived just after the Sagittarians departed, but the rest of the crew was lost.
Mirjam paced back and forth in the narrow center aisle of the destroyer’s bridge, wondering what was taking her scouting launches so long. Both had been deployed from their parasite cradles to scout the complex, dense ring system around an unnamed planet, and both had lost comms contact shortly after entering the rings. The sensor techs had showed her a report that detailed the high iron content of the ring debris, explaining the loss of signal, but their graphs didn’t make Mirjam feel any more at ease.
If Mirjam had been able to exercise her better judgement, she would have bypassed the ringed planet, spectacular though it was. Her little destroyer and its thirty-three crew – six of them now somewhere out there in the scouts – was way out ahead of the squadron, which was itself one of only two small groups trying to patrol Confederated holdings on the far side of the vast, empty Sagittarius Gap. She had never felt more alone. Orders were orders, however, and hers were to examine every part of the system that might house an enemy listening-post.
The two scouts – little more than stripped-down Magpie gunships with extra sensor gear bolted on – were far from unarmed, even if they were not meant as strike platforms. Theoretically, they could handle anything small enough to hide easily in the rings, and outrun anything bigger. Mirjam, of course, didn’t trust theory to hold up at the bleeding edge of things. The Sagittarians were still the masters of the Sagittarius Frontier, and they didn’t have any intention of letting something so immaterial as a theory dictate their defeat.
“Contact!” One of the sensor techs announced. “One small ship breaking free of the rings.” The smart-glass panel at the front of the bridge highlighted the spot and zoomed in on a reflective speck. It was moving fast – too fast for the situation to be routine.
“Affirmative. IFF exchanged. They want a direct line to the bridge.”
Mirjam nodded. “Put them through.”
A moment later, the bridge overhead speakers crackled to life. “Skipper, we need to get the hell out of here!”
Even as he shouted, two more specks burst free of the ring dust, pursuing the scout ship. On the magnified display, Mirjam saw faint clouds of glowing railshot spray from the scout’s turret, trying to dissuade its pursuers.
The panic in the pilot’s voice and the presence of Sagittarian strike ships confirmed Mirjam’s worst fears. The tiny, agile attack launches had very limited endurance; their base or ship was nearby. “Battle-stations. Cover them and get me a course for the grav limit.”
The alarm didn’t wait for the bridge crew to process the order; it began wailing immediately. “The other scout will never make it-”
“If they’re still alive, they know the protocol.” Leaving three spacers to drift stealthily in a hostile system until Navy forces returned cut Mirjam to the core, but she knew what she had to do. The scouts were outfitted for just such a situation, after all.
The hum of the destroyer’s drive changed pitch, and the view in front of the bridge heeled over at a wild angle as the navigation systems plotted the most direct course to the edge of the planet’s grav shadow. The inset displaying the fleeing scout remained, however, and Mirjam watched the little ship trace wild arcs of evasive action to prevent the Sagittarian pursuers from drawing close enough for a kill-shot. The high-power energy beams used by the alien strike craft had limited range, but a direct hit could easily rip a gunship in half.
As Mirjam watched her three compatriots fight for their lives, several more Sagittarian launches burst from the ring cloud at top speed. These angled not toward the fleeing scout, but directly toward Mirjam’s destroyer.
“Screens! Point defense!” Mirjam knew her ship couldn’t fend off more than a few of the attackers at once, and that they were far faster than her ship. The destroyer’s only hope was to widen the distance between itself and whatever hanger they had launched from. “Emergency acceleration. Damage control to standby.”
As the crew scrambled to fulfill her orders, Mirjam heard the rattle of railgun fire as the banks of weapons near the bridge opened up. Streams of glowing projectiles spewed forth to put up a hedge of death between the Sagittarians and their prey. It would only slow them down, but perhaps it would make the difference.
“New drive signature on the boards.”
The officer’s calm announcement plunged Mirjam’s cautious hope into the depths of despair. “Damn. Get it on the display.”
Another inset appeared next to the view of the embattled scout, this time showing an innocuous part of the dusty ring. Just as she was beginning to think the report might be in error, Mirjam saw the predator’s prow of a Tyrant cruiser push its way free of the dust, its bluish armor-plate marred by clinging debris. A dozen or more motes – more strike ships – poured forth around it. “How the hell did they-”
Mirjam never heard the rest of her subordinate’s question. Where Sagittarian strike-launches had only short-ranged weapons, a Tyrant did not. The powerful energy beam that killed Mirjam’s ship crossed the distance between them at the speed of light and tore its bowels open in the space between words. There was a crash and the rush of escaping air, and Mirjam’s world went dark.