A cool and calm female voice issued from the speakers inside Stardust’s flight helmet, “Stardust, Forrest, the board is green, prepare to launch.”
How Antalya Control managed to maintain that eerily calm voice while on duty was a mystery to Stardust, especially now as his heart was racing. He had launched into space hundreds of times before, sometimes for training missions, sometimes for patrol runs, occasionally even while under fire, but the familiarity of the procedure did nothing to dull the thrill he felt as he looked at the hangar doors in front of him – tall, dark and all that stood between him and vacuum, except for his Scimitar’s thin canopy of transparent plasti-steel.
He glanced down at his Scimitar’s instruments and confirmed that everything was clear for launch.
“Roger that, Control, we’re launching now.”
The door slid silently upwards, bathing the hangar in a warm orange glow and revealing the luminescent clouds of the Tihirau nebula, just a few dozen kilometres away. No, he thought, no sane person could remain calm at such a sight.
He deactivated the mag-clamps that held the Scimitar onto the deck and felt the fighter start to drift slowly upwards into the hangar. He was grateful for the variable-G systems that newer capital ships were using, it was much easier than trying to launch from full artificial gravity into zero-G. His posting on the R.S. Antalya was a temporary one. The R.A.S.F. felt it wise to occasionally rotate veterans through relatively obscure assignments so that back-line pilots could benefit from their experience. For greenhorns like Forrest it was a pain in the ass and a wake-up call; for Stardust it was almost as good as a holiday.
“Okay Forrest,” Stardust said, “standard spread off my starboard wing, let’s see whether you can keep up.”
He eased his feet onto the pedals and the engines flared out behind him, pushing his Scimitar out of the hangar and into open space. Once clear of the hangar he pulled the fighter to port, gently enough to avoid any uncomfortable g-forces but sharply enough to test Forrest’s reflexes. From here Stardust could see the R.S. Antalya in its full glory, docked at Otago Station. Otago Station wasn’t as grand as a proper military base, like Minear Station, but certainly wasn’t the runt of the litter. However, impressive as it was, the station was almost dwarfed by the Antalya. He shook his head and grinned, these newfangled Tempest class battleships certainly were impressive to look at.
He checked his tactical display and saw that Forrest was in perfect formation so far. It was time to have some fun. He led Forrest around and over the Antalya, towards Otago Station. A perimeter had been established around the station, composed of four frigates – two Taratanes and two O’Briens – and the R.S. Kerberos, one of the new Vashnir class destroyers.
“That’s a hell of a view commander,” Forrest said, “I think I could get used to being posted out here.”
Stardust grinned, but kept any trace of amusement out of his voice, “This is a patrol run pilot, not a tourist flight.” They flew past the station’s conning tower, close enough to cause a stir but just far enough to avoid breaking any regulations. “Forrest, open channel seventy-two, set to receive only. Let’s eavesdrop.”
Stardust did the same and immediately comm chatter came through the earpieces in his helmet. He recognised the voice of Antalya Control.
“…established, fuel-line connected, you may activate the pumps at your discretion.”
“Confirmed, Antalya, commencing refuelling.” Stardust presumed the second voice was Captain Alexander Sato, commander of Otago Station.
“Captain Sato,” Another male voice spoke, “This is Admiral Cronburg, how long is this going to take?”
“Approximately twenty minutes to transfer the fuel Admiral, then another ten to shut down and undock. You’ll make your rendezvous.”
Forrest spoke to Stardust over their private channel, “So Antalya’s out of action for the duration, right?”
“Hence the patrol run, pilot, keep your eyes open,” Stardust loved intimidating the fresh meat.
“Okay, I’ve loaded up the waypoints, stay with me.” He pointed his Scimitar towards the first target, accelerated until he’d picked up enough velocity and then took his feet off the pedals so that inertia could carry them the rest of the way. Not only was it fuel efficient, it also got rid of the rumble of the engines so he could really start to enjoy the flight. Aside from the background chatter of channel seventy-two and the gentle hum of the life-support system, the cockpit was silent.
“Commander, why’s everyone so paranoid about this?”
Not silent enough. Patience, he told himself, this was precisely why he was posted here – to answer stupid questions. “Are you familiar with Operation: Distant Thunder?”
“Well ever since White-Rim, the Cirins have been targeting Tempest class battleships, like the Antalya.”
“Isn’t that suicide sir?”
Stardust chuckled, “We’d like to think so, but so far they’ve taken out three Tempests, and the effect on morale has been staggering. The pride of the R.A.S.F. brought down by a bunch of farmers, imagine!”
“My parents are farmers, Commander.”
“And the R.A.S.F. lets you fly?”
“Perhaps the R.A.S.F. doesn’t know, sir.”
Stardust grinned, he was starting to like this guy, “Anyway, every dead Tempest is fuel for the Cirin propaganda machine.”
“Not to mention a blow to our strategic plans.”
“You think so?”
“Of course,” Forrest said, “Tempests are big, expensive ships, hard to replace.”
“Maybe,” Stardust said, “but they don’t go down easily and they don’t go down alone. Distant Thunder is more about grand gestures of defiance. Much like the war itself, really.”
“What do you mean?”
Stardust sighed, “When the war began both sides thought victory would be quick and painless, now… now the Republic and the Alliance are like two old dogs, circling each other, snapping at their opponent. Neither has the strength for a decisive win, but neither is willing to walk away from the fight – there’s too much hatred on both sides.”
“We didn’t start this war,” Forrest said, a hint of indignation in his voice. Stardust realised he’d taken the conversation into sticky territory, it was probably best to keep Forrest focused on the present.
“Anyway,” Stardust said, “a Tempest docked for refuelling is a perfect target.”
“Do you think they’ll attack?”
“I doubt it. This little pocket of open space is almost completely surrounded by nebulae, and the particles in those clouds interfere with sensors and make jump drive impossible. The only safe approach is a narrow corridor of normal space that we call the Tihirau passage, and that’s what we’re patrolling now.
“Stardust, report in.” Control’s voice came over the comms.
“All clear so far,” Stardust said, “scanners aren’t penetrating the clouds though.”
“We’ve noticed that too, the Admiral’s getting nervous, he wants your patrol to fly through the clouds for a visual survey.”
Stardust rolled his eyes. Admirals. “They’re clouds, Control, as in hard to see through. We go in there and we won’t be able to see each other, let alone any Cirins.”
“Nevertheless, those are the Admiral’s orders, Commander. I’m sending waypoints.”
Stardust sighed, “Understood, we’re moving to the first now.” He pulled his Scimitar about and pointed it towards the bright luminescent mass, “Forrest, fall behind and close formation. Your instruments will be unreliable at best so you’ll need to keep your eyes on my tail, understood?”
Forrest stammered, “Yes Commander.”
“You ready for this pilot?”
“Yes Commander.” His voice was anxious but resolute. Stardust admired that.
“Okay, here we go…”
The scimitars dived into the cloud, and the harsh sunlight which had filled Stardust’s cockpit was replaced by a diffuse orange glow. He flicked a switch that turned on the fighter’s running lights, “Still with me Forrest?”
“Barely, sir,” His voice sounded distant and distorted.
“Stay focused and we’ll be fine.”
Interference from the energised particles of the nebula was, as Stardust had expected, clouding his scanners, the comms and the positional tracking systems. He switched the nav system from absolute mode to relative, relying on the computer to track his Scimitar’s position based on thrust and inertia rather than drawing on outside references such as the Station. It was a flawed system, but better than drifting into obscurity because the computer thought the Station had relocated several kilometres to Galactic East.
“See anything Forrest?”
“Just a dark shape which I really hope is you.”
“Hang on,” Stardusts flicked a switch off and on, “did the shape’s running lights just flicker?”
“It’s me. Focus on keeping formation, I don’t want you running up my tailpipe because you were distracted, leave the survey to me.”
Stardust lead Forrest to what he hoped was the first waypoint.
“All quiet,” Stardust said.
“Nothing on the scanners,” Forrest said, “not that that means much.”
“Even if there was a Cirin fleet hiding in here,” Stardust said, “There’s no way we’d actually see…” Something huge and dark emerged from the cloud, gliding silently past his cockpit. He stared in stunned silence for several seconds. He couldn’t identify it, but whatever it was, it was big, and it was headed straight for Otago Station… and the Antalya.
“Commander… what was…”
“Full burn, on me!” Stardust shouted as he swung his Scimitar about and headed for what he hoped was the nearest edge of the cloud.
The g-force of the Scimitar’s engines at full acceleration pushed him back into his seat, and he was grateful for the augs the R.A.S.F. issued to all pilots to prevent blacking out under such strains. Still, it was not the most comfortable of experiences.
After what felt like an eternity, but was more likely thirty seconds, the Scimitars burst from the cloud into open space, the Antalya and Otago Station sitting peacefully in the distance.
“Control, we have incoming!” He shouted as soon as the comms cleared.
“Say again Commander.”
“Control, we have encountered at least one unidentified vessel in the cloud, heading…”
“Confirmed,” Control interrupted, “Admiral, long-range sensors indicate multiple signals converging on the R.S. Antalya.”
“Muster the fleet,” Admiral Cronberg said.
“Visual!” Forrest said. Stardust glanced behind him and saw the unmistakeable silhouette of a Daimyo class heavy cruiser emerge from the clouds, flanked by destroyers and frigates.
“Son of a…” Stardust said, “Control, are you seeing this?”
“All wings,” Control said, “break and attack!”
Ahead Stardust saw the Republic fleet moving to meet the Cirins – the Vashnir was leading the defence flanked by frigates on either side. On the furthest flanks, the Taratane class frigates, the R.S. Cordoba and the R.S. Trieste were moving ahead, creating a crescent formation, which would concentrate fire at the centre while the point defence of the Taratanes prevented enemy fighters from flanking. Ideally, the formation would include two more arms, above and below, but given the small number of ships on hand Stardust thought it was a practical setup. He saw two full squadrons of Scimitars streaming out from the fleet, and assumed that enemy fighters were moving to intercept.
“Break left,” Stardust said. He pulled his Scimitar aside and made for the Cordoba at the far right flank. Hopefully its point defence would provide enough cover so he and Forrest could regroup and join the fray.
There was a series of orange flashes, and he saw gun fire stream past his cockpit, “We’ve got Kestrels!” he said. His scanner confirmed that two Kestrels were closing on their tails. Pulling to the left had thrown the Kestrels off their targets momentarily, as they lacked the manoeuvrability of Scimitars, but their better acceleration was a concern.
“Shit,” Forrest shouted, “These guys are too close!”
“Evade fire,” Stardust said, “but stay on this vector.”
“We’re in range!”
“It’s okay,” Stardust smiled as he saw white point-defence fire start to stream out from the Cordoba, “so are they.” He looked back in time to see one of the Kestrels break pursuit and head back to their fleet, he checked his scanner and saw the other Kestrel follow.
Stardust and Forrest swung around and hit their braking thrusters so they came almost to a stop relative to the Cordoba. Now on the far edge of battle they were able to see the big picture as the two fleets closed to engage. Already the heavy guns of the Vashnir and Daimyo had opened fire.
“Right,” Stardust said, “let’s see what we can do about that Daimyo, shall we?” He floored the thruster pedals and went to full burn, straight towards the Heavy Cruiser.
“What about the Kestrels?”
“Leave the fighters to our other squadrons. Without Antalya, our fleet is seriously outgunned, we need to try and shift the balance.”
Point defence started flashing past their fighters, while heavier gunfire crossed their vector. For a second, Stardust remembered White-Rim, his first major engagement. It was there that he learned to his despair that luck plays as much a part in survival during battles like this as skill and bravery. He had lost skilled pilots and good friends at White-Rim.
No, he thought, it was useless to get lost in such thoughts. That’s what happened to Kari.
“Ignore the point defence,” he said, “They can’t track us if we skim the hull.”
The Daimyo’s hull flew past at a frightening speed, close enough to identify individual crewmen through the windows. Stardust angled the Scimitar’s nose down and strafed fire along the surface. Most of the hits glanced off the armour, but several bolts struck one of the cruiser’s main guns, disabling it.
“Second pass,” He said, “stay with…” There was a bright flash, and Stardust looked over his shoulder to see a mass of debris and burning gases where the R.S. Cordoba used to be.
“Kestrels!” Stardust checked his scanner and confirmed Forrest’s warning, there were two Kestrels approaching off their stern.
“Break left!” He pulled hard to right while Forrest went left. The kestrels split, one following Forrest, the other staying on Stardust’s tail. The g-force was enough that, even with his augs, Stardust started to see black shadows creep into his peripheral vision. He pulled out of the turn and found himself staring at a large piece of debris. He swerved at the last second, missing the debris by metres, and realised he had turned into the Cordoba’s debris field. If he turned back, the Kestrel would get a clear shot. He growled as he realised he had to fly through the debris field.
Stardust dodged and swerved through large pieces of broken ship, feeling rather than hearing the occasional thud as smaller debris impacted on the Scimitar’s hull. A large piece bounced off his cockpit, and it was a second before he realised it had been someone’s arm.
The forward section of the Cordoba was gutted but mostly intact. He pulled around it and came clear of the bulk of the debris field. His tactical view showed that the Kestrel was no longer in pursuit, though he had no way of knowing whether it had disengaged or was destroyed.
As Stardust swung back to face the station, he had a clear view of the entire battle. One of the O’Brien class frigates, the Galway he thought, had also been destroyed, cracked in half, while the Tredegar was crippled and listing helplessly. One of the Cirin frigates, a Cortes class, had been run through by the Kerberos’s lance, but the Kerberos herself had taken heavy damage exchanging fire with a Vorstok class destroyer. His heart sunk, the situation looked grim. If the Antalya had been able to join the battle, things would be different, but she was still locked with the station.
“Forrest,” he said, “report.”
“Can’t shake them!”
“Hang on!” He pointed himself at Forrest’s signal and went to full burn. He evaded point defence fire from a Cortes, which was holding back to support the Daimyo, and found Forrest’s Scimitar with two Kestrels on its tail. He judged their trajectory and managed to come in off their upper port side, strafing them with his guns. The second Kestrel took a direct hit to its cockpit and spun away, the pilot presumably killed, but the first stayed with Forrest, firing snap shots whenever its guns came to bear. Stardust pulled in behind the Kestrel and fired. He saw one of the Kestrel’s engines flash, and then explode, sending most of the fighter spinning into debris.
“Still there Forrest?”
“I think so.”
“Form up, let’s try another turret run on that Daimyo.”
“Yes sir…” The poor kid was on the verge of panic.
Through the general chatter of channel seventy-two, Stardust suddenly noticed a voice raised in anger, it was Captain Sato, “Admiral, what the hell are you doing!”
Stardust looked at the station and saw the R.S. Antalya pulling away, turning towards the Daimyo. The unlinking process must have taken less time than expected, except… as he looked he saw debris drifting behind the battleship. The Admiral had torn away from the station’s docking fixtures, causing breaches along the station’s unarmoured hull. Amongst the debris, there would be the bodies of some of the station’s civilian crew.
“New plan,” Stardust said, “we get clear.”
“Works for me.”
They pulled away from the Daimyo and sought the relative safety of one of the surviving O’Brien class frigates. The Antalya’s forward main guns opened fire, slamming into the heavy cruiser’s forward hull. The Daimyo returned fire, but had already suffered significant damage and had lost half its guns. In a matter of seconds, the tide of the battle had turned.
Then Stardust saw the Daimyo’s engines flare bright red – they were accelerating at full burn.
The Admiral must have realised what was happening at the same time that Stardust did, because he started shouting, “All ships, destroy that cruiser, now!”
The Antalya started to turn away, but it was too late. The Daimyo struck the Antalya’s side and punched through. The force of the impact effectively cut the Antalya in half while smashing the Daimyo’s forward hull. Then there was a bright flash as the Daimyo’s reactor overloaded, and a massive explosion tore through both ships, sending armour and debris hurtling through space and leaving two twisted drifting hulks, unrecognisable. Seconds later Stardust felt a shockwave of micro-debris from the explosion hit his Scimitar.
“Commander…” Forrest whispered.
Stardust stared at the expanding cloud of twisted metal and bodies.
“Keep…” Stardust had to clear his throat, “keep your eyes open for…” but he couldn’t finish. There wouldn’t be any escape pods, it had happened too quickly.
“All ships,” Captain Sato’s voice was clear and filled with anger, “I’m taking control of the operation. Close ranks and fall back…”
“Captain Sato,” Another voice interrupted, “This is Captain Jennifer Rhom of the R.S. Trieste, the Cirin fleet is disengaging.”
Stardust looked and saw that the enemy ships were, indeed, turning away from the station and towards the open passage. Obviously they had completed their objectives, and with so many casualties sustained on both sides, to continue the fight now would only end in the annihilation of both fleets.
“Alright,” Sato said, “all ships begin damage control procedures. We’re dispatching Starskippers for rescue and salvage, aid in any way you can. All able fighters search for escape pods.”
“Captain,” Stardust said, “I have two fighters here in need of a berth.”
“We lost both our Scimitars in the fighting,” Captain Rhom said, “you’ll be welcome aboard the Trieste for now.”
“Thankyou captain,” Stardust sighed, “Okay Forrest, let’s look for pods – time is critical,” he eased the Scimitar towards the Galway’s debris field.
“Commander,” Forrest said, “why a suicide run? We lost a battleship, but they lost a heavy cruiser.”
“You didn’t understand what I was saying earlier,” Stardust said, “this isn’t a strategic operation. They weren’t looking for a victory today.”
“What were they looking for?”
“Pain. They wanted to hurt us.”
Their two scimitars drifted in silence for several seconds.
“Then we should hurt them in return, Commander.”
Stardust sighed, “That’s how it generally works, pilot.”