The Terpla'ns - Chapter 8.50

Stories by Zume

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The Terpla'ns - Chapter 8.50

Postby Zume on Sat 25 Aug 2012 14:18

The reduction of the 12 Axis asteroid belt bases and their 24 associated way stations in Battlement began in earnest. King Russen had his fleet move in a counter-clockwise manner around the belt, starting in that part furthest from Battlement Prime. He knew that using this strategy would allow the enemy to load fighters with purely offensive armament; landing and replenishing life support at those bases not yet attacked, but also had the virtue of compelling them to attack now before their bases were destroyed out from under them. The most dangerous portion was when the attack started the Valhallan Royal Fleet didn’t face one Hatchet swarm but two. Even so the datalink jammers on the escorts made the task of destroying them more manageable.

Armed with pairs of laser packs, the F0 and F1 Hatchets forced the issue with their Shark counterparts in the defensive envelope of the fleet. It was an attrition battle for while the Axis lost squadron after squadron there was a toll on the Valhallan fighters. Unable to employ erratic maneuvers the Shark losses, while slight for each battle, mounted. For a further loss of 864 Hatchets a total of 61 Sharks were destroyed in the asteroid operation. Russen, still facing the prospect of eliminating the orbital works over Battlement Prime, moved his fleet to a distance of 14 LM from the planet and waited for two damaged carriers from a previous battle to finish repairs. So far there had been no signs of Axis reinforcements appearing from the system’s third warp point. Not so for the second one, however.

A combined armed pinnace/escort carrier detachment was assigned to destroy all communication and scanner buoys linking the system’s second and third warp points. Three days before the fleet went about its base-busting effort a scout sent word of a new contact. Upon inspection it turned out to be a convoy mostly composed of undersized corvettes and freighters. The detachment was within range but only by moving at maximum cruiser speed could it intercept the convoy before entering practical attack range of the F1 Hatchets based on the moons of the outermost methane world.

18 Whale armed pinnaces, each with two laser packs and a pair of FRAMs, were escorted by 24 Shark F1 fighters armed with a gun pack and two stand-off missiles each. Their primary targets were the 9 undersized FT2 freighters and solitary frigate-sized FT3. As for the escorts they were composed of 11 undersized commercial-engine corvettes and a scout. Only upon reaching weapons range will the Valhallan crews know precisely what kind of escorts they’ll be facing. As for the detachment, composed of two Couts, two Phyrs, a Chaq-B and Privateer, they followed at a distance of 4 light-seconds, external racks loaded with laser-tipped capital missiles ready to suppress the point defense of the escorts.

As predicted the Axis convoy launched fighters as the strike entered the point defense envelope. 12 F0 Hatchets swarmed out of three corvette carriers and mobbed the Whales. A slight amount of engine modulation made the craft harder to target for both fighters and ships alike. Nevertheless 8 Whales were destroyed in return for the loss of all the Hatchets. Seven laser hits on the corvettes stripped them of their solitary CAMs, denying them the use of that point-blank weapon. Dropping modulation the Whales went to full speed, closing the gap to the convoy.

It proved to be deadly for the remaining Whales as they were all splashed by point defense fire from freighter and escort alike with only four being able to unload their FRAMs. When combined with the missile fire from the detachment and the Sharks just four FT2s were destroyed with three more sustaining heavy internal damage. The convoy scattered at this point, knowing that while their doom was certain they would tie down the enemy and perhaps inflict some losses among the Sharks in the process.

Now with pure loads of stand-off missiles the 24 Sharks went after the freighters while the Privateer began the long process of destroying the corvettes with its solitary standard laser. Using minimal erratic maneuvering the Sharks entered prime range for their missiles while the freighters were unable to engage with their point defense systems. With the last freighter destroyed the Sharks helped the Privateer to vanquish the impudent corvettes.

Upon reflection it was clear that the Sharks alone should’ve been sent engaged the Axis fighters. Afterwards the remaining Sharks would reduce the corvettes with missile volleys with help from the Privateer while the Whales took on the freighters with missiles fired in the blindspots. Such a tactic was shared by the CSF with the Royal Valhallan Space Navy. However this battle proved the truth that navies had to learn things for themselves firsthand. Even with the loss of all 18 Whales and their crews the battle was a success for all the freighters and their cargoes were destroyed. Even so the carrier element was detained long enough that their fighters would be missed for the decisive battle for the system.


Back on Citadel Prime the operation of turning Stone Hearth, capital city of the Axis colony world, into a massive parking lot was ongoing. Field General Jingu-wa, commander of the 1st Expeditionary Corps, had his engineering battalions reduce the city in concentric circles with the ultimate goal of leaving the government house, at the center of the city, for last. Thanks to the use of prefab construction the process of dismantling the buildings was rather easy, as was the filling in basements with plasticrete. However the Comensal civilians-turn-guerillas, that is to say the whole colonial population, were indignant that their first city was being desecrated in such a fashion. They emerged from their fortified cellars or sneaked back in past the random minefields and patrols, holding up in buildings yet to be demolished by the Commonwealth troops. It was Jingu-wa’s plan to focus the ire of the Comensal at one spot in a campaign to break their will to fight through massive casualties. But the losses went both ways.

3rd Platoon of the 3rd Company of the 141st Regiment was assigned to assist an engineering battalion in ‘delousing’ buildings set for dismantling. Other platoons were involved, providing perimeter security. So far it has been quiet, and for the majority of the time the colonists didn’t so much as fire random motor rounds to keep everyone on edge. Lt. Casfe-de, 3rd Platoon commander, looked behind him at the flat expanse of streets and paved-over foundations. Before him was a three story apartment building, unmarked by war and apparently deserted. Going behind an armored engineering vehicle he found Corporal Menki-wa with a battlefield tablet in hand. “Okay, send in the snooper.”

“Roger, El-Tee.” Pressing the touch-sensitive screen Menki-wa sent the small crawling robot forward. Equipped with sensors that could ferret out explosive laden traps the robot was also an all-too-expendable asset in case it found Comensal. The entrance to the building had already been busted open by a breaching device, namely a chunk of plasticrete hurled by one Sgt. Pepen-su. All three watched as the crawler entered, surveying the first floor. With nothing detected Menki-wa instructed the crawler to go upstairs.

“You just watch the way you use that tablet, Corporal,” said Pepen-su. “That’s mine, and if you break it like you broke yours then I’ll re-rated you as a field kitchen technician.”

“Why would you do that, Sarge? I’d rather take point than become a slop jockey. Besides, tablets are expendable.”

“Don’t treat your equipment so casually,” said Casfe-de. “E’sani troops have a regretfully earned reputation for carelessly damaging equipment and going through replacements at a rate twice that of other Commonwealth troops.”

Menki-wa grinned. “Well, El-Tee, I have a feather touch.” After inspection of the first floor revealed nothing to the eye and other sensors the Corporal coaxed his remote controlled minion to go upstairs. At the landing between the first and second floors the robot appeared to be traveling an easy dozen centimeters above the plasticrete. “It’s no illusion, El-Tee. There’s definite resistance to the tracks when the robot made its 360 turn. It’s atop something covered in a camo-cloak.”

“It’s possible that a bomb is under that cloak. No doubt they were expecting a hard-charging E’sani to step on it,” said Casfe-de. “Corporal, send the crawler to the second floor. I’ll have the heavy weapons squad fire a volley of incendiaries into the house. If there are any snipers waiting up there the fires will negate their cloaks.”

“Yes, Sir.”

A total of twelve 60mm rounds were fired into the house, one for each widow. It didn’t take long for smoke to come pouring out, thick and toxic due to the composition of the incendiaries. Menki-wa coaxed his remote minion down the second floor hallway, sensors peering into those rooms that had their doors open. Pepen-su, looking over the corporal’s shoulder, saw the visual reading of what looked like a Comensal child curled up against the exterior wall. A fire was stubbornly eating away at the bed, making the room all the more stygian with each passing moment. Pepen-su, having seen more dead Comensal than he cared to remember was sure this one was already dead for no Comensal would consciously be in the same room with an incendiary burning so hot. He was wrong for the robot’s sensor showed that the child had a heartbeat.

Something snapped inside the sergeant like the weak link in a chain. He bolted for the building, ignoring the calls of his lieutenant and platoon mates. What he heard instead was the call of his fire company commander of four years ago back on E’sani Prime. It was a fire very much like this one, with a child trapped on the second floor. Without ax or even a full coat Pepen-su of back then rushed in, trusting his full commitment to the task of rescue to see him through. It was almost the same in the present, and he did remember to avoid the landing with a twisting vault onto the second half of the stairs, breaking the railing in the process. Fire was already marching out of the other rooms as if to oblige his memories, the stench of burning wallpaper and furniture already making his nostrils twitch uncontrollably in protest. In the bedroom he shuffled through the smoke until he made contact with the far wall, moving left until he made contact with the prone child. With the fire now threatening his retreat the E’sani picked up the child, holding him close, and hammered away at the plasticrete above and below the broken window. He jumped out and landed on the pebbled-layered yard below, performing a fireman’s tuck and roll to smother the flames he was sure were creeping up his back, just like what happened before.

He got up, relieved that at least one major difference from the fire four years ago: the child was alive. “It’s okay, El-Tee,” Pepen-su yelled. “I saved this one!” Instead of relief all he saw from Casfe-de and Menki-wa’s faces was intense concern. What he was hearing sounded like distorted gibberish. Menki-wa was pointing harshly at the tablet he had in his hand as he yelled, and Pepen-su failed to notice that the Comensal child had yanked a cord he had hidden under his shirt. There was a burst of light…


The waiting in the Gymnasium system was over. Star Admiral Mansel, commander of Star Force 2, commenced Operation Restoration by transiting his fleet in the starless nexus known as Abyssal-017. As for the Abom enemy they had no idea that there was a second warp point in 017, let alone that it was closed on this side of the link just like the first one. That wouldn’t have prevented the Aboms from assigning a small survey force or even establishing a comprehensive sensor net just in case. What they couldn’t know was the second warp point was a scant two light-minutes from the first, and at full speed a task group composed of carriers, cruisers, and military-hulled minelayers reached its destination in under 90 minutes. A double layer of mines and weapon buoys were laid with a CAP composed of Hatchet fighters primed to intercept any incoming and outgoing Abom courier drones.

In two hours SF2 invested the warp point leading to the Gravel Pit system. Without preamble a probe force comprised of three DN minesweepers and three DN assault carriers transited on the far side. As Mansel expected the Abom picket force was rather light, comprising of light carriers and their escorts with six squadrons of fighters for the CAP. Three of the Shark squadrons activated weapons and pounced two DNs. The damaged DNs were actually minesweepers instead of the carriers, being so similar in appearance, and from the latter 13 squadrons of F0 Hatchets erupted from stabilized catapults. None of the three remaining armed CAP squadrons were able to activate weapons in time before being shot down. Only six pinnaces formed the second wave, acting as messengers for the rest of the fleet on the far side of the warp point. For a full minute the 180 laser buoys were silent as the two attending control ships were still racing to action stations, and for their tardiness 10 Hatchet squadrons shot down 60 buoys with the DNs taking 8 more.

Three and six squadrons of Sharks, launched from active Abom carriers, were respectively 60 and 30 second out as the third wave emerged, made up of five DNs and one CV. One Grim Reaper, just one harsh look away from death, wasn’t able to transit out with the rest of the first wave when 100 of the remaining laser buoys were primed and fired by an Abom control ship. Moderate armor damage was done to the third wave ships while the last ship of the first was destroyed. In turn the new ships launched their fighter broods, 12 F0 and 15 F1 Hatchet squadrons. The six Shark squadrons crash-launched 90 seconds earlier ignored their opposite number and focused on the one Grim Reaper from the third wave that wasn’t quite able to follow its brethren back to Abyssal-017. For destroying the ship 36 Sharks were shot down, along with the three follow-up squadrons, though they bagged 7 F1 Hatchet fighters.

Down to 12 squadrons the CSF carrier group moved away from the warp point at full speed, pursued by the first and third wave Axis fighters. Leading the charge were the 150 F0 Hatchets from the assault waves, carrying partial or full loads of FRAMs and gun packs. The ships detuned engines, almost out of habit, though the older Hatchet fighters would still be able to engage. This was done primarily to control the terminal engagement range, roughly 1.25 LS from the ships, so defense fire would have the maximum effect. It was at this range the defending Sharks engaged, knocking out 31 of the older fighters before being overwhelmed and destroyed in their entirety. Taking their hits, the Hatchets, closely followed by their newer brethren, engaged the escorts at point blank range. With the jammers gone the fresh squadrons destroyed the carriers or left them so crippled they were finished off by frigates.

Mansel deployed his considerable resources. The Third Advance Fleet was comprised of three elements. Star Force 2, under Mansel’s direct command, headed for the Gravel Pit/Bedrock warp point while Star Force 3 made for the Gravel Pit/Bulwark warp point. Both had flotillas of dedicated mine layers ready to deploy clouds of mines and buoy weapons. Star Force 1 served as a reserve, ready to supplement the other two when called upon. For the moment the Abom force that had to be in Bulwark was to be contained until fresh units from the core of Axis space arrived. The main effort was to break back into Bedrock. Anything but a piker, Mansel sent in a wave comprised of 180 regular pinnaces, all having come from the Gymnasium system, through the warp point. That only 14 returned bespoke of a strong CAP, 14 squadrons strong and backed up by light warships and small bases. Only a short amount of time was allowed to digest the information to form an assault plan. Even if attacking presently meant going up against an alert force was a price that Mansel was willing to pay. The Abomination presence in Bedrock was to be expunged in its entirety.


Uanbo continued his operation of isolating Bulwark Prime. Left alone the Comensal on the planet will simply add on to their space station and even expand their lunar and planetary bases with additional fighter bays. To that end Uanbo took his task force directly in and was greeted by no less than 900 F0 and 216 F1 Hatchets just one light-minute shy of the planet. With adroit maneuvering and help from the suicidal intent of the Axis pilots the engagement between the fighters was a scant one light-second from the ships. Jammers proved their worth again, allowing allied pilots to bring down their foes by the gross. The one difference was that the F1 Hatchets were fitted for dogfighting while the F0s had laser packs. So equipped the F0s took potshots at the allied ships, either due to the jammers or on specific orders. Whatever armor damage was done was negligible, being so spread out that no one ship was considered being sent to the support group for repairs. Besides, once TF 21 in Forger’s Gate was finished with its refit TF 11 would be relieved and sent behind the front for its refit. For destroying this attack the allies only lost 40 fighters.

Having fought off one wave of Hatchets, Uanbo found another waiting over Bulwark Prime. Drawn from the small bases that connected to the asteroid belt and the inner rockball worlds and moons a force of 384 fighters kept company with two large space stations and four type-5 orbital forts. With an ample stock of munitions the Terpla’n admiral elected to reduce the defenses by bombardment, firing laser-tipped SBMs to first eliminate the forts and then the space stations. The Axis defenses would respond in kind, but would it a tough row to hoe as the bombarding ships would orbit at maximum range with ECM set to full. It will all come down to when the Axis commander felt compelled to release his fighters for the inevitable suicide attack.

Showing a sense of practicality and prudence the Axis commander concentrated his fire on the missile-armed Disams. Once the armor was compromised the ship was pulled out of the bombardment line and sent to the support group for repairs. While this may have provided a sense of accomplishment it still didn’t compensate the lopsided odds with the Allies having a 50% fire control solution to the Axis 20%. Soon all four type-5 bases were eliminated and the bombardment group retired to refill their magazines. Just as they moved the Hatchets were released, heading for the Oknib missile dreadnaughts. Another jammer assisted dogfight ensued with the allies only losing 25 fighters.

Returning to the bombardment line the Oknibs fired on one station while 672 Shark fighters, loaded with FRAMs, advanced to point-blank range to engage both. Only a handful of Axis pinnaces were able to engage, and even then they missed in the one minute they had. With nothing to attack the Axis small craft landed on the planet since the two stations were totally annihilated. Once the ground fighter bases on the planet and the moon were eliminated Uanbo had the task force settle into orbit, dispatching a carrier task element to remove the transit bases and now fighter-denuded bases on the rockball worlds in the inner system.

It was here that the admiral learned of the Axis return to the Gravel Pit system. So far the scouts reported two large formations of ships heading for both the Gravel Pit/Bulwark and Gravel Pit/Bedrock warp points. There was the very real possibility of TF 11 being cut off, and Uanbo had to make several decisions. If he elected to return to Bedrock not only would he had to break through the expected blockade at the Gravel Pit/Bulwark warp point but also have to contend with whatever awaited him in Gravel Pit. Staying in Bulwark was a practical choice except that the support group only had supplies for three months. Faced with unknowns that wouldn’t be solved by staying put Uanbo elected to return to Bedrock at the earliest possible moment. The armor damage to the Oknibs and Disams had to be repaired as well as replacing fighter losses to bring the carrier groups to full strength.

Leaving Bulwark Prime as is, however, wasn’t an option. Uanbo had a carefully measured bombardment of the planet’s industrial infrastructure conducted. Comensal casualties were minimized, and the inhabitants would be kept busy for months restoring their infrastructure instead of reestablishing themselves back in space immediately. If it was what Uanbo expected, another grandiose Axis plan that was bound to fail, then the task force will return to finish the job that it started.


The Output system, having seen the defeat of AFC Admiral Lorcan over six months ago, had become a backwater to the war through inaction. Next door in the Data Disk system a network of scanner buoys, tended by a handful of Sloop scoutships, kept a vigil for a fresh Axis incursion. A survey found no regular warp points, and with no captured astrogation data to fall back on there was no way to locate the closed warp point Lorcan had to use all those months before. A set of small fortifications was erected at the Output/Data Disk warp point with Task Group 25 lending support. Far strong defenses were placed at the Metalstorm/Output and Dotz/Metalstorm warp points. Everyone knew that Output was but a speedbump should the Axis return in force, inflicting as much damage as possible on assault assets so as to delay the enemy and allow the Commonwealth and Hamthen defenders to reinforce Metalstorm and Dotz.

With time on her hands Commander Pepons thought about what might have been had things gone differently half a year before. Given the layout of the warp lines she had to wonder what passed for strategic thinking in the Axis Fleet Command. What they did previously in Metalstorm was piker's work when true effort would've allowed the AFC not only to starve out the CSF in Axis space but also allow a return to Hamthen space. Was it perhaps their need to demonstrate their strength at every opportunity? If so, Pepons thought, it might turn out to be their one real weakness. She hoped that weakness would continue so that the CSF could exploit it.

Pepons did her thinking in the long range scanner compartment about her command, Spearfish-41, a picket-leader version of an Okado class destroyer. The compartment served as her CIC as she was the second-in-command of Convoy HO-6. Having served 25 years in the merchant marine with fifteen of those as skipper of a freighter Pepons expected to be commanding a military freighter when she volunteered to join the naval reserves when the war broke out. Instead she was made a senior lieutenant and served as the XO on a frigate for eighteen months. After that she was promoted and placed in command of the Spearfish-41 in addition to DesDiv 56, the other ships skippered by naval reservists that were less senior to her. It bespoke of the explosive growth in the CSF and the insatiable need for experienced ship handlers. Looking at the tactical repeater plot she wondered how many of the contracted civilian freighters had skippers with more than two years worth of experience. That she was the most senior reserve officer with merchant experience in the convoy explained why the convoy commander, one with little experience when it came to dealing with civilian skippers and merchantman way of thinking, had tapped her to be his second in command and to translate his words and orders into terms that could be more readily understood.

Convoy HO-6 was small when it came to its charges. A sole Quagaar class was the largest ship, followed by a trio of Tuphon-built FT5s and pairs of Enterprises and Salesmen. Following them were a Commerce, Indie, five Free Traders and one Sertucon Treasure Carrier. The last was notable in that it was the first Sertucon ship to have entered Axis space. Still lagging behind in technology the race did provide a good deal of resources and rear-area transportation. It was deemed safe enough to send this first ship as far Output, and in time Sertucon-crewed vessels would be better represented in service groups further up the chain leading up to Bedrock, Kerama Retto and beyond. As for escorts, in addition to Spearfish-41, there were two regular Okado DDs, a trio of old-style Barlatio CLs, 6 Jeln DDs, 6 Quagaar Bodyguard CTs with 6 Hotpoint ESs in tow, and three Tzel Index CTs. Rounding out the protection were a pair of the new Unganu small carriers along with an Interception CLE. Technically there was no need for an escort at all, but tradition as old as dust dictated that one must be provided, regardless of the short distances involved.

"Flash message from the task force, Commander," said the signals officer from his station. "Sending to your primary screen."

Pepons blinked quickly, refreshing her Terpla'n eyes as she focused on the screen and its scrawling data. "The Axis has reappeared in the Data Disk system," she said for all in compartment to hear, "thus revealing the location of the closed warp point. However, due to the location of that warp point the Axis task force, moving at 0.083c, will reach the Data Disk/Output warp point in less than four hours."

"We're only one light-minute from the warp point defenses, Commander," said the senior sensor tech, looking at the main sensor plot suspended in the holoimager in the center of the compartment. "At cruising speed it'll take us 30 hours to get to the Output/Metalstorm warp point."

Pepon's clear set of inner eyelids came and stayed down for a time, a sign that she was intensely thinking. "Should the Axis break in, we can expect an attack by advanced elements of their task force. Signals, I'm surprised the convoy commander hasn't called yet. Raise the flagship and call in my staff. A review of contingency plans is in order."

"Aye, Aye, Commander."

Worse news came after bad news. The Axis task force broke into the Output system, obliterating the fixed defenses and CSF task group alike, though at considerable cost to themselves. Part of the cost was the use of armed pinnaces. Coupled with FRAMs the enemy now had an assault element on par with the Allies. The civilian ship masters, while hoping the defenses would hold, kept an ear on military signals. They didn't need to know the codes to figure out what was happening as the signals began to lessen over a period of eight minutes until there were practically none. They began to inquire to the convoy commander for an increase of speed to 0.067c, thus reducing the now 26 hour trip to 19.5.

That would've been fine, except that the Sertucon ship couldn't go that fast. Understandably anxious, but with poorly applied vigor, the two captains of the Salesmen freighters put forth the idea of picking up the crew and scuttling the ship. When the Sertucon captain replied that he would do no such thing at the present time, putting his trust in the convoy defenders and for reinforcements from Metalstorm, he was briskly told by his two Terpla'n counterparts that the convoy shouldn't be held back on his account and be abandoned to his fate.

Before the convoy commander could respond Pepons vented her onions. She told the two captains that they had the moral convictions of bilge worms in sunlight and were a disgrace to the merchant service for making such a suggestion, especially when the enemy's intentions weren't clear. Going even further, she told them that it was in the convoy commander's discretion to have all the freighters evacuated and scuttled since they were running empty. Saving lives is more important than saving ships, whether empty or full, she told them, and it's far better than to be left to one's fate. Once said, a long pause follow like after a child was scolded for leaving a bedroom a mess. Both captains offered their apologies and retracted the suggestion that earned them the ire of Pepons. As for the convoy commander he felt that Pepons handled the situation well as direct talk was better than politeness in this situation. He merely reminded the freighter captains to prepare of the contingency that his second-in-command had mentioned.

Still in contact with the sensor buoy network and using the Spearfish-41's long range sensors Pepons watch as two contacts closed on the convoy. The first was either destroyers with detuned engines or smaller ships moving at max speed, covering four light-minutes for every hour of travel. As for the second it had to be cruisers moving at max speed as there was no reason on the Axis' part in having battleships with detuned engines pursuing a contact that yet had been identified. That came as the convoy was 23 hours from the Metalstorm warp point. A trio of Axis Fleet Tracker scouts ventured to within 9 light-seconds of the convoy before dropping back to 12 light seconds, matching the convoy speed. It didn't matter to launch fighters to engage for even a partially loaded fighter couldn't get within range of scouts that can simply detune engines and run away in the opposite direction. They got the information they needed and were content on simply shadowing the convoy like expectant vultures.

As for the second contact it slowed down and kept pace 1.5 light-minutes behind the convoy, now just 22 hours from safety. It was comprised of six ships, and moments later either fighters or small craft were launched. The convoy commander sent a single unloaded Shark to investigate. What it found mixed relief and concern. Relief in that it wasn’t a massive fighter strike, but concern of the number of pinnaces involved. There were 36 of the craft, and they had to be of the armed variety. Alone they weren’t much of a threat, but the 45 other craft were a complete mystery. They were larger than standard shuttles yet smaller than pinnaces. Where they some kind of advanced assault shuttle, one that could attach itself to a ship while it was underway? It was something that gnawed at the brains of every tactical officer in the convoy. As a precaution all marine detachments were told to suit up for possible boarding actions.

The scout fighter was recalled and all six Shark squadrons were armed with gun packs and ECM pods. The slight edge in protection would ensure fewer Shark losses overall, and if the Axis small craft tried to employ erratic maneuvers to compensate they’ll be in the defense envelope of the ships that much longer, resulting in more losses before they could strike. The more she thought about it Pepons felt that the two chastised captains were right. Had the convoy been faster the task group in Metalstorm would’ve released its six Cout escort carriers as soon as word was received of the Axis entry into Data Disk. 72 more Sharks would’ve nullified this incoming strike. Was it pride and tradition that dictated the decision to stay the course? How many were going to die for a ship that would only take a harsh look to destroy? The answer to the latter was forthcoming.

The Sharks met the Axis small craft one light-second from the convoy with first blood drawn by an armed pinnace. With long-range fire from the convoy all 36 armed pinnaces were downed. Judging by their explosions they had FRAMs on their external racks, and the strange shuttles had antimatter ordnance as well, yet only 4 of the 45 were swatted away. However the craft carried a potent close-in defense system for even with ECM pods the Shark losses stood at 20. With only 16 Sharks left it was to the firepower of the escorts to reduce the menacing cloud of death. At the order of the convoy commander all ships made minimum headway with all the ECM and erratic maneuvers they could manage, half turning to relative port and half to starboard so that weapons on one side could cover the blindspots of the other. The Sharks followed, determined to finish what the ships missed.

Pepons watched as the cruisers opened up with external close attack missiles, internally launched sprint missiles, point defense laser batteries and force beams. While worthy numbers of the strange shuttles were downed more than enough would live long enough to fire. Each let loose with a pair of FRAMs, targeting the freighters. The big Quagaar lost most of its holds but retained all of its engines. The two Salesmen were more unfortunate, each only able to make half-speed. Both Enterprises lost their passive defenses, thankful for having ECM systems installed when the ships were militarized for naval service. One Tuphon freighter looked as if it were hit by buckshot, all of its holds open to space with an engine room sputtering sparks like a firework. The Commerce was the worst off, down to one-fourth speed. Between the Sharks and the escorts the Axis shuttles were almost spent.

Almost. Two shuttles, perhaps piloted by crews that sought to obliterate fresh targets instead of beating up on the Enterprises, turned on the smallest ships in the convoy. Corvettes and escorts couldn’t generate their fire control solutions in time, and they, like Pepons, had to watch the result. A Free Trader simply exploded like a water balloon hitting the ground, its innards gushing out of its port side in a torrent of atmosphere and metal when it was enveloped in antimatter fireballs. Its killer was vanquished, leaving the last one to focus on a ship that had the weakest drive signature. Looking at the sensor plot instead of the screen spared Pepons’ eyes from the harsh glare of the ship’s demise. The blinking, fading red crosshatch pattern that represented the Sertucon ship was just as painful to watch in any event.

“All Axis shuttles destroyed,” said the tactical officer to Pepons’ right. “We lost more fighters in the last exchange. There are only 13 Sharks left.”

“Signal from flagship, Commander,” said the comm tech. “All ships are to assume formation and set course for the warp point. No ships are to advance until the order is given. All small craft from the escorts are to being search and rescue operations. Small craft on the carriers are to transfer crews from those freighters unable to make 0.067c.”

Pepons blinked quickly. “Comm, acknowledge signal from flagship. Send out our cutter to look for survivors with priority given to pilots.”

“Aye, Commander.”

Turning to a repeater screen Pepons took in the projected casualty reports. She told herself that the overkill visited upon the two small freighters made it highly unlikely there would be survivors. Had there been just two squadrons of Hatchet fighters, even the obsolete F0 kind, accompanying the strike then the freighter losses would’ve been higher. Again it seemed the Axis felt the need to attack as if to prove that they had the initiative. They’ll learn from this mistake, and the next such attack would be deadlier.

There wasn’t much time. In twenty minutes the convoy was underway at the speed of the fastest freighter. Unable to repair the one engine the Tuphon FT5 was scuttled, along with both Salesmen and the Commerce. Only when the Axis ships were 15 light-second way did the SAR craft abandoned their search and hightailed it at full speed back home. Neither speeding up nor slowing down the six ships, four battlecruiser and two destroyer hulls, were seemingly content to follow. There was a debate to detach the Okados and Hotpoints, along with the remaining Sharks, and engage the Axis formation as it was comparatively close by. With the large number of armed pinnaces and new shuttles involved it was argued they were pure small craft platforms and therefore easy to kill. Pepons was against the plan, for the enemy could simply detune engines while running for safety. More importantly, it might not be enough for the job, even if there were no more armed small craft and the ships had no internal weapons. Despite the requests from the Hotpoint captains the convoy commander decided against the attack as there were enough casualties already.

When it came to the warp point the civilian captains, still jumpy after the battle, had to be kept on a tight rein. Pepons foresaw this, requesting and getting the tugs of the support group in Metalstorm to transit into Output. If necessary she was ready to tractor those freighters attempting to jump the gun and transit in a group instead of singletons. It took a bit of restraint on her part not to remind the captains of the clause in the contract they signed with the Mercantile Auxiliary Service; a clause that stipulated that any action that endangered the safety of ships in a convoy will result in a forfeiture of pay at a minimum and charges of reckless endangerment and loss of license if warranted.

Thankfully nothing happened, and convoy HO-6 entered Metalstorm. Reluctant to have the damaged freighters repaired on-site with the Axis now just a warp transit away the convoy commander settled for Hagelkorn, four transits from Metalstorm. Once there all the ships involved would not only get repaired but also receive the latest refits, which included the new shields and point defense suites. No doubt existed in Pepon’s mind that by the time her command was refitted she could very well see combat in Metalstorm, if not closer.


The Spice Clipper cargo corvette was only in orbit of Hamthen Prime briefly before clearance was given for it to land at the Memorial Spaceport, located on the outskirts of the capital. Admiral Tulcus Jki watched the descent from her cabin’s viewer. The city showed mark change since Jki last saw it over a year earlier. Most of the burned out and wrecked structures have been leveled or removed entirely. Clusters of cranes rose up like so many metallic mushrooms amongst the cityscape. Building in earnest and vigor proved the strength of the collective Hamthen will. This was perhaps expressed the most in the reconstitution of their navy. From now on every allied task group will have Hamthen representation, even if it was just frigate squadrons. They wanted the Comensal to remember that they were still in the fight.

Safe in its landing cradle the corvette began to disgorge passengers and cargo. Instead of leaving first, as was her privilege, Jki allowed the small number of convalescing soldiers to precede her. She was in no hurry, but the limousine waiting for her suggested otherwise. As it wasn’t a staff car the two passengers that came out to greet her weren’t port officials but no less than Hamthen President Skuu and CPS President Huj. She saluted the two heads of state. “Forgive me for saying,” Jki said in a lighthearted manner, “but it had to take some doing to meet me like this without the press corps in tow.”

“They’re all waiting at the Unified Command Center,” said Huj, looking resolute yet worn like weathered rock, Terpla'n eyes unblinking. “We have some news that needs an official touch rather than the taint of the sea vine. The Asteroid Axis has broken into Bedrock.”
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