Saints of a Solar Empire, Part 4: The Price of Betrayal
The Assailants and Sentinels with Skirmisher escorts closed in steadily through the missile storm until the TEC vessels entered their effective firing envelope. At extreme ranges, missiles only had enough drive power to reach the targets with minimum or no evasive manuevering, allowing point defense plenty of time to refine tracking on the missiles. However, the Vasari missiles were able to perform complex vector changes, confusing fire control and vastly increasing their missile surviveability.
They were hurt going in, losing another four Assailant-class frigates, but then they entered the range when Assailant missiles were devastating and even the anti-fighter missile armed Skirmishers were deadly to targets as lightly armed as terran Javelis vessels.
"Sir, the Athens has lost all shields and the Fraser reports substantial casualties in engineering. She's down fifteen percent off her maximum."
Forscythe nodded at Anna's report. At first, the missile exchange had been fairly even, which had favored the terrans as the Vasari didn't have the ships to absorb that sort of punishment. However, between their third and fifth barrages, the Vasari had switched from targetting most of the LRMs and Dunovs to tracking the Marza-class dreadnought Blair Fraser, and two dozen of their phase missiles slipped through the surprised latticework of defensive fire to crash against the dreadnought's stupendous shields. A third of the barrage slipped through the Fraser's shields and impacted directly into its armed, tearing it asunder and killing weapons and people.
Several more missiles slipped through in the next broadside as point defense crews expected the Vasari to finish off the wounded dreadnought only to have them switch priorities back to the frigates and battlecruisers. The LRM frigate Caprison paid for the mistake with the loss of all hands.
"Tell the Athens to retreat further ahead. She'll be nothing but a liability with her shields down. Status on the enemy?"
The lieutenant commander didn't even have to check the display. "We've only destroyed two more Assailants and three Sentinels, but we've driven most of the Skirmishers out of battle. They're retreating back to the capital ships."
Forscythe nodded. They knew how important the Sentinels and, especially, the Assailants were, and Skirmishers were strictly short ranged attack frigates. With the in mind, they were seeded among the Sentinels and in front of the Assailants. Whenever it looked as if one of the immolating missiles would collide, the Skirmishers would drop their ECM and act as magnets for the missiles. The tactic had worked, and exponentially increased the surviveability of the missile-ships, but had reduced their strength dramatically. By the time the last of the air-streaming wrecks had retreated, Forscythe was down to half-magazines.
But they were gone now, and Forscythe felt a smile creep over his lips. Without the light frigates, and despite the withdrawal of the Athens and the damage to Fraser, the Assailants and the Sentinels were about to pay dearly. Now, if only those missile-heavy Marauders could be persuaded to come in alone without the Devastators and Desolators to support...
"Sir, the Assailants have gone to rapid-fire!"
Forscythe's head shot up. Between their losses, the Vasari only had thirteen Assailants left and fifteen Sentinels. The Sentinels didn't go to rapid fire, but in a minute of rapid-fire, each Assailant put eight missiles into space, and the Sentinels put an equal number with their extra launchers adding to their multiple launches. Over two-hundred twenty missiles streaked towards Task Force 3.
Because of the staggered launch, Forscythe's ships only had to face a few dozen at a time, and point defense knocked out almost half of them. Another third lost tracking as over-extended computers aboard the Assailants simply failed to lead their children to the enemy. Sixty-eight missiles entered terminal tracking and crashed against the task force.
Forscythe rocked in his chair as, despite all odds, a single missile wormed through the fleet and collided with the shields of his own Paul Schuegraf. As the massive Kol battleship stabilized, reports came flooding in and Forscythe realized how truly lucky his ship had been. Thirteen LRM frigates had been destroyed in the launch, most of them with weakened shields through the engagement. Two more battlecruisers had had their shields battered and several missiles had passed through and rent their massive armor installations, and...
"Sir, Athens reports total system failure. She's little more than a hulk, and Captain Andrew has ordered the crew to abandon ship and--oh my god!" Forscythe looked at Anna's screen and watched as liquid fire ran along the battlecruiser's inner hull, renting and blasting, the metal seams in the armor buckled and ruptured and, finally, seventeen hundred men and women disappeared as the Athens' anti-matter reactor containment failed. There was no debris--simply a great flash of light and expanding gas.
"Captain, CIC advises that with our reduced speed due to combat damage, the rest of the Vasari fleet will enter effective missile range in three hours, two hours short of the gravity wall. They should enter short-range combat fourty minutes into the missile engagement." The lieutenant commander pressed at her ear where her communicator was placed. Forscythe saw what she was about to say in the data stream. "The Marauder battlecruisers have detached from the Devastators and Desolators. We'll enter their effective envelope in one hours, on the far side of Nibelheim."
Crusader Altima sat at her command chair, watching as the TEC and Vasari light codes disappeared from the main holo-tank. The arrival of the Vasari task force had been cause for concern, and the Crusader did not care to have both defilers in her system at the same time. It looked as if the problem were about to solve itself with minor changes to Altima's own plan as the battlecruisers raced forward to meet the damaged terran units.
Still, even if the Vasari annihilated the TEC vessels, they would almost certainly wreck the orbital infrastructure before leaving, perhaps even bombard the surface. They couldn't lock the world down, not with their lack of any troop transport vessels, but they could and would ruin years of effort and put the people of Hades back into pre-space ages.
Altima sipped her hot beverage, an ancient recipe her maid crafted with exquisite care, as a single point of oscilatting light appeared on the holo tank. The point where the crusader's forces would move into action when both invaders would be most occupied with each other.
Slowly the two forces began to close with the black asteroid-moon of Nibelheim watching over them like some arcane death god. The TEC forces knew they were doomed--they were too damaged, too depleted, and too shaken, while the Vasari battlecruisers were more than enough to destroy every capital ship in the terran force.
The range began to fall, and the battlecruisers opened fire at extreme range. They did not go into rapid fire, for they had also depleted their missile stores, but battlecruisers carried far more munitions that craft as small as their Assailant cousins. They would wait until powered missile range until they pounded Task Force 3 into dust.
Forscythe listened with calm expectation as damage reports trickled in. Shields were battered and armor was destroyed as phase missiles slipped between the protective fields. Weapons were destroyed and people were crushed as explosions ripped through their ships. After so much death, Forscythe didn't even react when the Javelis vessel Zetis spiraled out of formation and blew apart under a swarm of phase missiles.
"Anna," Forscythe finally said, "is everything ready for Plan Vandenberg?"
"Yes, sir," replied the exec with collected calm. "The task force will proceed as ordered once the Vasari enter effective missile range."
The Battle of the Vandenberg Twins had been the TEC's first victory against the Vasari, according to civilian reports, and it was, in a sense. In truth, it had been an exercise in mutual slaughter in which the terran ships had been fed into a meat grinder of Vasari plasma and beam and phase missile weaponry, where the terran short-ranged autocannons, lasers, and missiles could be used best against a superior foe.
A very young Lieutenant Forscythe had ridden the battle aboard the Sebastian Kol and watched as his admiral had hurled his ships past the space-equivalent of knife fight range, forcing his vessels almost shield-to-shield against the Vasari. Forscythe would never forget the trouble look on his captain's face as she relayed the admiral's permission for ramming runs against Vasari Devastators.
Plan Vandenberg was simple. Once the Marauders were in their most effective missile range, the TEC forces would simply turn around and accelerate at maximum speed towards the enemy. Marauders were missile heavy ships, their equivalent of the Dunovs, and Kol beam weaponry almost had the range of powered missiles. If Forscythe could gut the battlecruisers, perhaps some of his own smaller ships would be able to scatter and return to TEC territory. He had no doubt that there would be no ship heavier than a cruiser left when they were finished.
Engineering had assured him that they had plenty of redundant control runs. If the Schuegraf had power, it would have engines, and that was fine with Forscythe.
Altima watched as the range fell in her holo-tank. She had expected better of the infidels. Were they too cowardly to face their own death? Perhaps. Perhaps they still believed that some miracle would force the Vasari to disengage, or reinforcements to arrive. Sadly, neither would be the case, and the crusader expected the terrans to keep running as the Vasari pounded them to pieces. It would be fitting, in a way, she supposed. The thought reminded her of the custom of euthanizing ailing pets.
She raised an eyebrow as there was an abrupt change in the TEC formation as the Vasari battlecruisers entered powered missile range. A smile tugged at the corner of her lips as the task force adjusted course to charge straight at the incoming enemy ships with what had to be every available strike craft they had left. So, they were not cowards after all, but perhaps they sought death after all, and couldn't live in fear.
"Crusader," spoke the force captain. "Choir reports that the situational change has not affected the original estimate."
"Very well. Sound the alert, then. Our prey is almost within reach."
The force captain nodded without another word and retreated out of Altima's view. Her eyes were focused on the green, pulsating holographic representation of the six Vasari capital ships slowly clearing Nibelheim.
"Andrew, patch me through to the rest of the task force."
"Aye, sir," replied the diminuitive lieutenant in his typically quiet voice.
"When the Vasari first appeared, we didn't stand a chance. All we had were antique ships and weapons designed to hold back the occaisional pirate force. We had no fleet, no unified military force, nothing, and we were slaughtered in droves.
"But still, we fought them. The cost was high, indeed. We lost many great men and women fighting them, slowing them with our blood and dead. We did this because the alternative was unacceptable. For free terrans to become nothing but slave labor? For our livelihoods to become nothing more than melted slag as the Vasari stripped our worlds clean? For our culture to become suppressed and erased, and humanity to become nothing more than intergalactic cattle? Intolerable!
"All who die in the defense of our way of life are heroes! To die for the sake of others is the greatest calling we, as the TEC, can have. We did not start this battle, but, by God, we will finish it and make those damnable aliens ever sorry they engaged us in battle!
"You all are drawn from this sector, from the Eastern Reaches. You fight for your friends and loved ones, and every charred alien corpse that you send to drift amongst the stars will be one less assaulting their worlds and burning their lives to ash!
"It has been an honor commanding you all. The TEC may never know of our victory here, but it shall be a victory nonetheless. All ships, fire at will! Give no quarter!"
While Dunov battlecruisers and Marza dreadnoughts were primarily long-ranged combatants, Kol battleships truly shone at a closer engagement range. They were heavily armored with the best shields and armor that the TEC could afford, and each ship were armed with four massive beam cannons with ranges almost equal to terran powered missile envelopes.
As one, twelve beam cannons fired from the three remaining Kol battleships, and each one raked over a single Vasari Marauder. Vasari technology outclassed terran equivalents, but no battlecruiser in known space could hand such firepower. Even as the Vasari's shields adjusted frequency and attenuated the strength, they rippled and collapsed.
But the battlecruiser was only naked for moments as the terran battleships continued firing, rending armor and puncturing the hull of the battlecruiser. Reactors went into emergency shut down and damaged caused the air inside the hull to ignite, sending waves of fire throughout the battlecruiser, incinerated the crew and destroying weapons.
After a single devastating broadside, a single Marauder tumbled out of formation, nothing more than a powerless hulk, crew suffocating as environmental plants failed.
Terran fighters, bombers, and rapid-fire missiles followed those beams in as the Kols shifted to another target, and Marauders spat swarms of phase missiles and medium-ranged heavy pulse beam projectors, even as the Devastators and Desolators grinded on towards the battle.
Altima felt the crew's excitement as the Vasari creeped over the point of light.
"Yes, M'lady?" replied the captain, barely a hint of anticipation coloring her voice.
"Give the order."
Forscythe grunted as another hit rocked his ship. The ranged had now fallen to autocannon and laser fire as the two forces interdicted, and it fell further. The terrans went past knife-fighting into the range of teeth and claws. Three more Marauders had died underneath his force's fire, burning them from space even as his shields, ships, and crew accepted reciprocating fire.
The Marauders were being destroyed so quickly because Forscythe was deploying his full strength against each at a time, knowing full well something like two-thirds of his damage was being nullified, but he had no choice. He had to destroy as many as possible before his missiles ran dry and before his ships started to die. Already most of his vessels had thirty percent shields and were streaming atmosphere.
Forscythe watched as another Marauder's shields went down and his fighters, zero ammunition, followed the beams in, piloting their craft like homing missiles and rammed into the gouged battlecruiser hull. All dozen ships disappeared together in a flash of light.
"Sir, I'm picking up some strange emissions from Nibelheim," reported Lieutenant Beaufort, affectionately called 'Beau', the sensors officer.
Well, of course, thought Forscythe. Nibelheim had a rather large mining operation that was putting out all sorts of interference, thanks to the Hades government forcing the task force to stay at range of the actual planet. Beau shouldn't've been confused by some dirt-mover's smelter...
"Captain!" cried Anna. "We're detecting another fleet! CIC designates Force Two!"
What Forscythe had said was true. Nibelheim was a massive asteroid rich in materials useful for starship construction. As such, an impressive foundry had been raised on the planet to mine the valuable resource, and between the heat and electronic noise generated by such an operation, most starships tended to avoid such installations for a reason.
Force Two had been hiding in the shadow of Nibelheim's black face with their emissions cut to almost zero, and lost to space. Neither the Vasari nor the TEC were looking for the ships as they 'knew' where the system defense forces were, and even if they had, it would have been almost impossible to distinguish Force Two from a hole in space.
And now the ships powered up, shields raised and targetting systems activated.
"Status on Force Two!" commanded Forscythe, though his officer training kept him from shouting like some snot middy.
"Detecting sixteen battleship-range frequencies, along with twenty-four battlecruiser range and thirty plus frigates, sir!" replied Beaufort through his shock.
"Sir, CIC reports that they're beam armed," reported Anna, pressing her ear piece harder. "They're engaging the Vasari capital ships!"
Devastator class Vasari battleships are the most powerful vessels in known space. While the Desolators are bigger, they are mostly ranged snipers. Devastators are designed to engage the enemy closely--to take damage that would cripple a lesser vessel without a second thought, and to throw their full weight of fire into the enemy's teeth. The first generation Kol battleships of the TEC needed better than four to one odds to take on a single Devastator.
The Vasari knew this. There had only been one foe who had ever offered a challenge to the Lord of Destruction.
Their surprise was complete when over one hundred beams from Force Two targetted and fired on just two Devastators before they had even began to turn.
There was nothing left of the twin vessels--neither debris nor life pods. Heartless computers evaluated the data. There was no need for such over kill.
Twenty seconds after the first devastating strike, a hundred more beams fired and erased another two Devastators and a Desolator from existance before they had finished coming about.
Once Force Two had entered the battle, it became a rout. The Marauders, having seen their fellows slaughtered like helpless rodents before the claws of birds of prey, they broke away from the crippled wrecks of the terran task force, using their speed advantage to break and attempt to flee even as Force Two turned its vengeful beam cannons on the defenseless Vasari frigates.
It almost appeared as if the Marauders would escape until Force Two launched almost one hundred squadrons of strikecraft, moving faster than terran, or even Vasari, strikecraft could possibly, they intercepted the Marauders, armed with the same beam technology as their mothership counterparts, allowing them to rake the Marauders over and over without breaking off.
The last Vasari battlecruiser was annhilated twelve minutes before the phase limit.
Forscythe looked into the face of the too-young woman commanding Force Two. The admiral of the United Hadean Confederate Defense Force had commed the captain shortly after the last Vasari units had been tracked down and destroyed.
Forscythe had surprised the urge to want to strangle the girl--Admiral, he corrected himself. If they had merely coordinated when they first met, so many of his people would still be alive.
He shook the notion from his head. Her first priority, of course, was her own world. He couldn't fault her for that, at an intellectual level, and it was because of the Hadeans that any of his people were still alive, aboard their air-streaming wrecks, all their shields uniformly down and only a small collision away from total reactor failure.
"...and so I apologize, Captain. It was unfortunate I could not come to your aid sooner nor communicate with you without revealing my presence. As the Hadean representative, I am willing to offer you amnesty and a repair birth for your vessels. I am also prepared to shuttle over medical personal to see to your wounded. If you wish, we can discuss the terms in person while my hospitallars see to your wounded."
The captain thought for a moment. He didn't particularly like letting foreigners on board, but he didn't have much choice. There were already several hundred dead aboard his ship, and he knew the Fraser must be a charnal house of death at this point.
"Very well, Admiral Altima. I accept your offer, and please accept my invitation."
Crusader Altima cut the circuit as she and the trader admiral exchanged farewells. A small sense of satisfaction creeped over her as she reflected on how well the computer imaging software hid her surroundings and her more offensive aesthetics to the desecrator.
"Are the missionaries prepared?"
Jackson Forscythe waited in the boatbay in his dress uniform as well as a marine honor guard. It had been difficult to scrape up such a detachment after so much battle damage and death, but it was his duty as a representative of the TEC. We still have our pride, he thought, and we damn well deserve it!
The Captain had felt a sick sense of relief as the trio of battleships slid in next to his shattered command. They had been streaming air like so many of his vessels, and he had the distinct feeling that even if their shields had not been raised, there wouldn't be that much left. These had to be their least damaged battleships.
Of course, they had to make a show of their own prowess, he understood. Still, it was relieving to know that no one could tangle with Devastators, no matter how numerically superior, without taking some hard licks in return.
The shuttles were a bit much, though. Assault Shuttles were designed to carry formations of troops down into surface combat. Heavily armed and armored, they were some of the largest un-phaseable ships in space. Forscythe could use the medical personel and supplies those ships carried, but having them delivered in such heavily armed shuttles was a bit heavy handed.
Still, the captain thought, he would reserve judgement until he met this Admiral Altima. After all, they may have a good reason for such a need to impress. When this is over, though, he would have to introduce them to civilized trader behavior.
These thoughts ran through the captain's mind as the shuttle settled into place and adjusted pressure. The ramp slowly creeped down, the light from the inner hull of the shuttle snaking out around the ramp.
Shock ran through the boatbay as the TEC crew looked not upon trained medical personel but assault troops in gleaming powered combat armor carrying some of the most advanced anti-personel infantry weapons in space.
Captain Jackson Forscythe, Trader Emergency Coalition Navy, Eastern Reaches, died before he could even reach for his sidearm as a hundred small hyper-velocity disks ripped through his body and embedded themselves in the hull behind him.
"Commander, I'm picking up some weird readings from those battleships."
"What do you mean, Beau?" asked Anna as she leaned over Beaufort's console to check his readings.
"They've stopped leaking air, and we're picking up some weird emissions, like they could be targetting links."
Anna frowned as she checked the data to confirm it. It could be any number of things. The sudden stopping of air could just mean that they've sealed the compartments exposed to space. Likewise, hull-penetrating scanners could be mistaken for targetting beams, which is why Task Force 3 wasn't exactly trying to unlock any technological secrets at the moment.
"Well, I suppose we should inform the captain and--"
"Sir, we've lost communication with the boat bay!"
"Commander, those battleships have just raised their shields!"
Anna quickly turned back as the first battleship opened fire on the surviving frigates. Frigates, being as vulnerable and small as they were, didn't need the medical personel shuttles like the rest of the fleet did, and so they were fully crewed by TEC humans, and they couldn't be allowed to escape.
Astonishment, confusion, and anger ran through the bridge as the Sherman Cobalt-class frigate broke in two under a battleship-range beam cannon.
"Commander," shouted Lieutenant Focker, the normall quiet and reserved communication officer. "Captain Holden reports that they've been boarded!"
Anna turned quickly to face the lieutenant as another comm channel opened. "Commander, this is Sergeant Arnolds, we've got boarders! We've been pinned down on deck seven! They've got engineering!"
"Andrew, open a channel to the rest of the ship."
Anna started speaking as soon as she heard the chime. "We've been boarded. These Hadeans have betrayed us! All crew report to the armory if you can and prepare to repel boarders!" She quickly cut the circuit.
"Tactical, get me a targetting solution on the lead battleship."
"Aye, ma'am!" responded Lieutenant Shannon as she worked her console, then stopped. She then smashed her fists against it. "Commander, we've been locked out of the system, and weapons and shields are non-response! They've cut the power."
Anna felt her face pale. With engineering and the power plant taken, the Schuegraf couldn't fight, move, or resist.
"Ma'am, Captain Holden reports that her ship still has power. She's making a run for it."
Anna nodded. If she could get away, they could warn the sector capital about this. Their deaths wouldn't be for nothing!
All hope vanished as a capital beam cannon smashed into Holden's ship. The Ausprey Pecheron-class light carrier blasted apart as the beam tore her in two, killing over four hundred TEC personel and an unknown number of boarders unable to fully suppress the crew.
Anna felt sickness welling in her gut. These weren't human--they were abominations! To betray the injured under a flag of truce...to kill their own when they couldn't complete the betrayal!
"All of you, get to the weapons locker on deck one. Arm yourselves and good luck."
The bridge crew nodded and raced for the exit without another word. They knew what she was trying to do.
It was standard protocol. Not one created by the TEC, but one far older, bred into every system defense man and women through the centuries--don't let your vessel be taken by the enemy.
Anna felt tears stain her cheeks as she slid into the captain's chair and accessed the console. Over the open communications channel, she heard a familiar voice shouting. She concentrated a little harder and discerned the voice of Commodore Priev.
"We surrender! Stop killing us, by god! We surrender!"
That worthless piece of slag, thought Anna. That vile, wretched worm!
Anna snarled, her resolve back as she activated the console and inputed the self-destruct code...then froze as the computer rejected the code, and the terminal powered down.
Over the channel, another voice opened. A soft, feminine voice echoed through the TEC ships even as another wave of assault shuttled billowed from the battleships.
"Attention traitors, betrayers, and desecrators. We have suffered your existance for a thousand years, but no longer! We are exiles no longer--we are the Advent, and we have come to claim what is ours. Surrender now, and join the Unity, or face oblivion."