Saints of a Solar Empire Chapter 2, Part 7: Purifying Fire
"It's confirmed, sir. Marco Polo's been destroyed. Looks like they used strikecraft this time."
Admiral Palmer nodded and gestured to the communications officer to continue on.
His forces had been stalking the Nexus-class star in the An'd'vari cluster for several days. Because of its proximity to the Northern Kingdoms and near the edge of the Order space, the An'd'vari based forces had always been a pocket task group. Even after being picked over for White Fleet, the admiral still had a full squadron of capital ships. Unfortunately, all the firepower in the universe didn't matter unless they could bring their stupendous strength to bear.
For the past several days, trade ships entering the nexus star had been pounced on and destroyed. It was a classic tactic of phase space warfare. The tradeships coming from the neighboring stars usually had plenty of power left to make an emergency phase transfer to one of the other systems. However, one of the multi-megatonne vessels making transit from several hundred light years away was reduced to the bare essentials of power requirement as their capacitors were drained. It took time to recharge for a phase jump, even one as short as a few light years. The time could be reduced by absorbing the massive amounts of energy thrown out by the An'd'vari furnace, but while a ship was busy recharging their capacitors in such a way, they were more or less defenseless and immobile.
In theory, this made the freightors sitting ducks. The huge, lumbering ships relied more on their phase engines than the sublight engines. After all, why would you need to move at the max c-fractional velocity when the gravity well of a planet was so shallow? As such, anyone with a military grade engine could easily catch them, and if the trade vessel attempted to flee, their frantic haste would take them away from the sun, slowing their charging, and any attempt to push their engines would actually drain them!
However, two anomalies stood out in these attack patterns. Firstly, the reports of the strikecraft being used to hunt the trade ships indicated that this wasn't a typical pirate raid. Strikecraft were impressive, powerful vessels for their displacement. However, the systems integration required in a warship displaced weapons, and pirates always wanted as many weapons as possible. Small craft also required pilots who, by the very nature of their missions, had to be trained--well--and quickly replaced because of attritional losses. Most importantly, of course, were the technicians who maintained and repaired the fighters and bombers. Pirates could barely be convinced to maintain their own shoddy, patchwork hulls protecting them from exposure space.
The second item that stood out in these attacks were the fact that the shipments were being destroyed. Pirates, by their very nature, were raiders--attempting to capture as much of their prey intact as they could. Merchant vessels could be salvaged, their crews pressed into service aboard pirate vessels, and the cargo could be used or sold to a black market fence. Destroying vessels that they could salvage was just bad business.
Which indicated that the hostiles weren't pirates but were, in fact, Vasari.
The Vasari had a history of this sort of rear-area raiding. Despite their more advanced technology, the invaders preferred to operate behind enemy lines, where their individual superiority, knowledge of phase space, and supreme endurance counted for the most. It also meant that they could off balance the terrans fairly easily, since they had a habit of 'shot-gunning' their target area as well as surrounding systems. Of course, even then, sometimes they misdirected by attacking a system they hadn't even threatened!
It was quite frustrating, as were the Vasari themselves.
Still, the situation didn't seem like something the Vasari would do. The loss of life and equipment from the merchants was notable, but the fact of the matter was that the attacks were more annoying than anything, and the Vasari were usually quite dilberate in their attacks. They'd hit a target, move on, and cause as much general chaos as possible. The general, almost clumsy, method of sticking to the nexus and hitting anything they could seemed counter productive. By modest estimates, the Vasari had to have at least a Maurader-class battlecruiser, one or two escort carriers, and at least two scout frigates, probably pretending to be holes in space around An'd'vari and keeping an eye on Palmer's task group. More than likely, they had several more vessels than that, especially if they decided to bloody Palmer's system picket.
A single Devastator could annihilate his entire command at medium rangers, and a Desolator with Assailants could wound his ships greatly before they managed to escape. Still, battleships, even Vasari battleships, weren't designed for long ranged missions like the Marauder battlecruisers were, so odds were that anything that Palmer's ships ran into, he'd be able to scare off, unless the Vasari had established more than a rudimentary base for their raiding operations.
"Marco Polo's captain was in the Minverva reserves," continued to communications officer. "We've got a partial scan and a locus from where he was pounced." Lieutenant Matoya shifted uncomfortably under his admiral's full attention, and quickly shifted his gaze down to his data pad. "Looks like she was hit sunward, sir. CIC's feeding the info into the screen now, along with projected courses, based on incoming merchant schedules. Also, sir, the partial on the bogey...it's not perfect--merchies have crappy sensors though Marco Polo's captain, a, uhm, Captain Leonard, she upgraded her suites. Their assailant was in the upper capital ship range."
The admiral nodded and dismissed the officer. Upper capital ship range was a little surprising, all things considered. There were only three ships in the known Vasari warship inventory that would have those masses--a Devastator, Desolator, or one of their carriers. The aliens, for whatever reason, didn't particularly think very highly of strikecraft tactics. They still used them, of course, but in smaller squadrons and usually in a purely defensive formation deployed inside their own ships' anti-missile/strikecraft envelope. Of course, the Vasari's general technological superiority made them deadly combatants.
Because of their disdain for strikecraft, Vasari rarely used their own carriers. In fact, they've only been confirmed in only a few battles on the Western Front, and then, only when the Vasari themselves were caught off-guard. The Office of Shipbuilding's study of the remains of destroyed carriers have even determined that the carriers are of a less sophisticated design than the rest of the Vasari fleet!
Palmer checked CIC's course estimations, though the admiral suspected that guesses would have been a more accurate word. Space was huge, to say the least, and the entire Home Fleet could be hiding out there and he would have no idea about it. Add to the fact that the massive star pumping out radiation and other interference, and he would be hard-pressed to do anything more than stumble over a stealthed ship by sheer accident.
The merchant manifests indicated that there were only three incoming ships within range of the Marco Polo attack. Two were one-ship transits while the lad had four ships. In theory, the enemy would hit the third in order to destroy as much cargo as possible, but whoever was in command might anticipate that move and choose one of the other targets, just to be difficult. It was also possible that the enemy ships may simply not know about one or more of the incoming merchant groups, and may simply decide to engage the ones they know about--or none at all.
Still, given the choice between losing one merchant vessel and four, Palmer's choice was clear. Even if one of the other merchantmen were destroyed, he might be able to pinpoint the attackers and force an engagement. Barring that, he'd at least be able to escort the merchantment to the phase limit and send them on their way further into the cluster.
However, another problem presented itself as he checked CIC's numbers on his intercept course. His ships could make it, with time to spare, but he'd have to move at such speeds that any scout ship without range would definitely detect him, no matter how good his ECM. If his entire force was detected, he had no doubt that his attackers would simply move on, and while that wound be acceptable, Palmer wanted a little bit of payback for all the lives these bandits had caused. Unfortunately, moving the maximum speed that would strain his ECM, he'd miss to deadline by over four hours.
It's the capital ships, Palmer thought. His lighter combatants were small enough that they didn't need stealth--they could just maintain emissions control. His heavy cruisers and escort carriers did, but they could also move at much greater speeds under stealth than, proportionally, capital ships could. Of course, if Palmer left his capital ships behind, odds are that even a light Vasari escort flotilla could chew up his units, and the merchantment may be damaged through fighter strikes without his big ships' anti-strikecraft/missile arsenal.
Then he had an idea.
"Nimoy, I'm sending you a coursework. I want you to refine it and tell me if it'll work under stealth," said the admiral to Lieutenant Willis, his staff navigator, as Palmer scribbled down some estimations onto his datapad then sent them over to Willis's screen.
The navigator replied a few minutes later. "Ah, yes, Admiral, it should work. We'll have to go in with full shields running, but the interference should mask us pretty well, sir."
"Excellent! Alright, here's what we're going to do..."
It was a simple enough plan. In essence, Palmer used his greatest obstacle, the Nexus star, in order to make his timetable. By immediately dropping into stealth, Palmer sent his lighter ships along a wider course around the sun while his six capital ships formed up and proceeded along a much tighter course around the sun.
Capital ships' much stronger shields were able to deflect enough radiation to allow his full force to arrive at the transit point with time to spare. In fact, the interference from the star would allow him to travel faster and with his shields at full and still not be detected--all of his ships would arrive approximately at thesame time.
The tactic wasn't without its risk. If the enemy engaged his light combatants, his capital ships would be unable to support, and they would most likely be destroyed or reduced to impotence. Likewise, if the enemy manuevered on the outside of his course, the could force a missile engagement on his unsupported capital ships, and while both targeting systems would be degraded by nearly 80%, his capital ships would be at more of a disadvantage in purely equal terms--and if there was one thing Palmer and the TEC had learned in the past ten years of fighting, it was suicide to fight the Vasari at relatively equal tonnage at range.
Admiral Palmer was resting comfortably at his station on the flag deck as the last of his dispersed elements slid back into formation. The journey had taken slightly longer than estimated, though his plan still gave them a little leeway--ther merchant vessels weren't scheduled to arrive for another three hours, but phase travel over such vast distances could vary by days by even the slightest of delays, so his forces probably had plenty of time.
Still, he kept a quarter of his vessels at general quarters at all times, including at least one capital ship. He needed sharp eyes on the sensors. It cost his ships in fatigue and equipment wear, but a surprise assault would be slightly more costly, not only in equipment but lives.
"Admiral," stated Lieutenant Leonard, breaking Palmer's reverie, "the Gaea reports a sensor ghost and--scratch that, sir, she's got a hard lock on a bogey directly starside of the convoy arrive point!"
So, Palmer thought, they were intending to pounce these ships. Well, we'll just have to teach them the error of their ways.
"CIC is refining the data, Admiral," said Captain Parks, Palmer's chief of staff. "According to the data, contact is indeed capital range, and she's deep in the star's radiation field."
The admiral nodded. They were using the same trick he had used in getting here--resting more or less relative, allowing the sun to mask their presence until the right time in which they'd pull out just long enough to launch their strikecraft safely, wipe out the merchantmen, then retreat back into obscurity.
Unfortunately for them, their plan had backfired. He had detected them before they were in the optimal attack range, and if he attacked now, he'd have them trapped between the sun and his forces. Both combatants would be without strikecraft as the sun's radiation would fry a pilot in something as flimsy as a fighter or bomber, but he had many, many times the firepower than a single capital ship.
And, of course, their position wouldn't allow anything less than a capital ship's shields to prevent fatal radiation to their crew.
"Additional enemies?" asked Palmer, already having a gut feeling on the answer.
"Ah, no, sir. We're having a hard time keeping lock on the alpha contact as it is. It'd be almost impossible to find other ships, too."
"Do the scout frigates report anything?" Fearing a flank attack, Admiral Palmer had decided to deploy six scout vessels in a standard cube pattern to watch for anything nibbling around the edges of his fleet.
"No, Admiral. If there's more ships out there, they're out of active sensor range, and they're in stealth to keep our passives out of the equation. If the unidentified is sending them signals, they're using whisker lasers and not omni-directional transmissions."
The admiral nodded. It was possible and more than likely probable that the unknown had friends with him waiting in ambush, and Palmer knew that there were at least several enemy scout ships. They must be aware that they had lost tracking of his entire force, and that they were in range to intercept their forces when they hit the merchants.
It was always possible that the enemy knew the exact details of his force composition and his position. If that were the case, and the raiders were still here, it meant that they had enough forces to wipe him out, which meant he was screwed in any case. He'd either be forced to engage the enemy when they pounced on the convoy. Even if he abandoned the merchantmen, they could simply sweep along the cluster until he was forced to make a stand with his back pressed against a population center.
However, between choosing the fight the enemy on his own terms or the enemy's, the choice was simple. If the unknown was part of a large, spread out force, it would be much easier to take out a single force in detail--and a capital ship's destruction might have those Vasari bastards think twice about tangling with the rest of Palmer's force with nothing but light and possibly medium combatants, especially since Palmer was well stocked in strikecraft.
"Alright, Rose," said Palmer, having made up his mind on the best course of action, given the situation. "Let's get the fleet in formation Delta-II. Leave the escort and fleet carriers here. We won't be needing them in a battle that close to the sun. Oh, and leave CruRon 887 with her screening elements to watch over the carriers. After that, we'll..."
I've got the bastrds.
Calmy, calmy, Palmer told himself. Best not to get over excited, now, is it? Keep cool. Keep calm. Be the crew's rock. You knew this was going to happen all along.
Sure, of course you did.
They were almost in extreme missile range and the enemy had given no indication that they had been detected. Palmer didn't know why, but he'd take it. The closer he got, the less tracking time the enemy would have. If they weren't at general quarters, his salvo would go in almost unopposed, and with the number of launchers on his three Dunov battlecruisers, they would tear apart an unshielded Vasari battleship all on their own.
Unfortunately, Palmer did have to halt his frigates outside of the engagement zone due to radiation buildup. The loss of the Javelis launchers hurt, but Palmer was more worried about the loss of the flak frigates--Vasari missiles were always dangerous, and the only way to 100% insure that they didn't pierce the hull was to take them out before they hit the shields.
"Sir! Gaea reports she's being hit with active sensors," said Leonard, listening to his com. "Scratch that, the entire squadron reports being hit. They know we're here, sir."
"Well, so much for the element of surprise," Palmer heard Parks whisper under her breath.
"We always knew this was a possibility, Rose. Still, we're close enough to force an engagement. The squadron's shields are up, I take it?"
The chief of staff nodded. "Yes, sir, they implemented Alpha-2 immediately when hit by sensors."
"Send word to Captain Trimell," said Palmer referring to his flag captain on the warship bridge buried at the center of his Kol battleship. "Inform her that the Dunovs may fire a single salvo. Let's see how good our people perform."
The three Dunov battlecruisers belched dozens of missiles at the single enemy vessel, who had managed to work up their shields and ECM. They appeared sluggish, however, as almost thirty percent of the missiles smashed into their shields, which was almost double the estimated ten percent impact for a first volley and this close to the nexus star.
Palmer felt a smirk of satisfaction as the blip representing the Zulu bogey began to flash as the computer calculated hits. It was a small downpayment on the butcher's bill he owed them for all the ships they had destroyed in this system.
"Sir, CIC is getting some hard data on Zulu. It matches no known emissions, tonnage, or class of Vasari warship."
The admiral looked at his chief of staff for a few minutes before his mind processed the information. If they weren't Vasari, then who could they be? Pirates? No, they didn't fit the behavior pattern. Someone new? Then why attack with no provocation, and why hadn't anyone else heard of them? Surely some backwater planet would attack the Trade Order nor was there anyone this side of the Northern Kingdoms who would have the capcity or motive to rebel...
"Admiral, Captain Trimell reports that the hostile is retreating further into the star, and--sir, tracking has lost a hard lock on her."
Palmer frowned. The Vasari could, of course, operate much deeper, thanks to their generally superior shields and armor. However, Zulu's current position was at the extreme edge of what TEC capital ships could endure, even with full shields.
In all likelihood, Palmer's attack had panicked the enemy carrier--and carrier it must be, due to the number of strikecraft reported by Marco Polo--and they, lacking the armor or weapons to strike back, had simply retreated closer to the sun. Palmer felt unfulfilled at that thought--he wanted to destroy the carrier, but if it's captain had opted to fry every living thing on the ship with radiation, the admiral couldn't complain too much.
"Well, it wasn't what I expected, but my compliments, people. Rose, get with the other ships and get everything you can on the unknown. I'm sure intelligence will want to know about them. No point in running quiet anymore on the battlecruisers. Any scout ships out there will be tracking them continuously, but I think we've delt with the threat.
"Let's get back to those merchies."
The battle station kloxon woke the admiral from his quarters a split second before his channel was pinged. Groggily, Palmer opened the link and was greeted by the faces on Captain Trimell and Captain Parks. Palmer quickly shook his brain into operation upon seeing the look on both their faces.
"Sir, the convoy has arrived and is at the rendevous point with the carriers, but we've detected a phase out and speeding towards them quickly. The enemy ships have the same emissions pattern and approximite size of the carrier that we engaged."
"Tell the carriers to form up on us, along with the lighter ships. Have the merchantment follow us--they'll be safer with us from a strikecraft launch. I'll be on the bridge in ten minutes."
"Aye, sir," and Trimell's screen vanished.
"Size and make of the enemy force, Rose?" the admiral said, glancing at his chief of staff as he hurried into his uniform trousers.
"At least three of those large carriers and about three dozen lighter ships. CIC has designated them Zulu-II, and--" Rose was cut off as she pressed her hand to her earpiece, listening quickly. "Sir, they've launched strikecraft on an interceptor course to us, and there's more coming in from behind us"
Palmer frowned then sighed. Clearly, Zulu-I wasn't quite as dead as he thought, which spoke well of their shielding. "Authorize the carriers to defend themselves with their fighters, but tell them to wait for the rest of the task group to join them. It's not like they can take out our ships with just strikecraft."
Admiral Canaan resisted the urge to hurl his chair against the wall in frustration.
Where are you, Palmer? her growled inside his mind. You're over sixteen hours due for a report.
Canaan was responsible for the defense of Georgette in the Atalia system, the most heavily industrialized system in the An'd'vari cluster. He was also responsible for the several billion people inhabiting the planet, and with Palmer gone, he had lost all but a few of his defense forces. All he had were a few frigates, a heavy cruiser, and a half-dozen weapons platforms and hanger systems to defend the entire planet.
At least merchants were getting through, thought the Vice Admiral. He desperately wanted to know what happened with Palmer's forces, but all the merchantment coming through had been on the other side of the nexus star.
So, all Palmer was doing was screwing with the defense command CO in order to show the superiority of the new, shiny TECN to the old-fashioned, backwards planetary defense units.
Canaan was going to enjoy issuing a report to his superiors.
As he took exquisite pleasure in that thought, a chime sounded on the admiral's official screen unit. With a quick voice command, the connection was made and Canaan's sensor officer was appeared on the wall.
"Sir, an unknown phase out has occured at the limit."
"Is it Palmer?"
"No, sir, the emissions are too strange and by the strength of the ripple, the numbers don't match either. There's at least four battleship-range ships out there and a few dozen frigates for company."