Within five minutes of transit Captain Kul B. Rai realized that the plan for HARBINGER II had gone awry. The fleet transit had been timed and coordinated to enter the system behind the main Kra'Vak fleet as they engaged TF Gold. They were to warp in as close to the Röt Hafen as possible and transition directly into the attack. Unfortunately, jumping that close to a planet's gravity well always entailed risk. TG Five's carriers had been scattered during transit. Task Group Six, whose job it was to secure the Dortmund station complex, was missing the KRS Maria Theresa. With the dreadnought was TG6's commander, Admiral Roth. Wherever the Maria Theresa had scattered to, it was out of contact range and out of the action. Quickly adjusting he plan of attack, Captain Cadmann, Roth's 2IC, had directed Rai into a screening position between TF Silver and Röt Hafen's moon. The rest of the ships would carry out their assigned tasks.
Rai listened in on the task force data net as the battle unfolded. Nearly a million kilometers away, TF Gold was hotly engaged with the enemy's main body. It was still too early to confirm the outcome, but things seemed to be going well. Here, only three enemy cruisers were in orbit above Röt Hafen. They were protecting the station and being engaged by TG6. Task Group 5's carriers had launched a massive fighter strike against the orbital defense platforms. Even this had fallen behind schedule, due to the time it took to reform the ships following transit. The enemy defenses were alert and waiting for them with a massive fighter response. Over 80 Kra'Vak fighters were protecting the defense platforms and the station.
The Provider kept her defensive station and used her powerful scanners to detect any enemy moves against TF Silver. UN patrol cruisers were designed for extended patrols out on humanity's rim. Thus, much of their mass was dedicated to crew comfort and extra stores. Her weapons included three primary beam batteries, two secondary batteries, a PDS, and two missile launchers. Her powerful engines could propel the ship with 6 KPS acceleration. She was fast enough to run from anything she could not destroy. However the Provider's most important asset was her suite of superior sensors, amongst the most sophisticated in existence today. Her multi-national crew were handpicked UN volunteers, the best and brightest of their professions, as were all United Nations patrol cruiser crews.
"Sir, Captain Cadmann reports Dortmund's defenses are down. The processing station g's defenses have also been disabled. They are commencing the boarding operations."
"Good. What about casualties?"
"The strike cruiser Donau was destroyed in the battle, the cruiser Mack has suffered a bridge hit and dumped her power core. The other ships are in good shape, including the Inizak."
"Put me through to Cadmann."
"Aye Captain, establishing secure link. Link established, your mike is hot."
"Captain Cadmann, Captain Rai. The task group has suffered some damage. Are you sure you don't need us? My marines were scheduled for the boarding action."
"I'm aware of that Captain Rai. But we've altered the boarding manifests. I need you where you are, covering our backs. Well be stationary and vulnerable for the next hour. Johnston has finished up the last of the defense platforms and they're busy sweeping orbit clear of any Kra'Vak satellites. The Kra'Vak fighter response has been incredible. A few even got through and hit the Ark Royal."
"Yes, I saw that on the net."
"Well then I've got to attend to the boarding. Still no sign of Roth here. How about on your sensors? Anything of him on your end?"
"None at all."
"So be it. As long as this is the extent of the Kra'Vak response, we'll be all right. Hold your station until further notice."
"Will comply. Rai, out." Well, he had his orders: sit tight and wait.
Master Petty Officer Marina Jurewicz wrinkled her nose at the strange readout on her display. In her fifteen years of UN service, she had always found picket duty nerve wracking. Just sitting around waiting for an attack. Jurewicz ran the UNS Provider's sensor section and the powerful main sensor array. She had been concentrating on Röt Hafen's moon and the local space surrounding it. They could not spare a ship to scout out what was on the far side. No abnormal energy emissions had been detected. However the secondary sensor suite operator, Zeev Kain, had alerted her to a very subtle change in radiation readouts happening right under her nose, a scant 30,000 kilometers out. They decided to flip-flop their coverage and Zeev took over studying the moon while she focused in close.
"I'm handing off to you the target box, designated Yellow-One." On Jurewicz' display a yellow cube surrounded a 300,000 cubic kilometer volume of space where Zeev had noticed the anomaly. Using her hand controller, she rotated the display in all three axes as she applied various sensor filters to the display. If anything strange were detected she would notice it as different colors in the pixellation. When she selected the ion-discriminator she noticed a scattering of pink pixels on her display. If she had not been diligent, she never would have found them. Zeev had done well to notice them.
"Computer, enhance ion emissions, Yellow -One. Six pixel band."
The scattering of particles glowed stronger in her display. It was easier to discern a pattern now. She could see a feint trail of the particles moving along a track parallel to the Provider. She was able to reduce the volume of Yellow-One and concentrate her efforts on a 50,000 cubic kilometer volume.
"Computer, enlarge and enhance Yellow-One. Zoom three-X." A second track emerged from the plot, some, maybe two hundred kilometers past the first one. But which direction were the tracks heading? She didn't want to inform Captain Rai until she had that. Jurewicz placed the cursor on one end of the tracks, and redrew Yellow-Six into a 10K c/k volume. "Computer, enlarge and enhance Yellow-One. Zoom three-X. Increase scan power to 35mj. Time stamp ion particles trace through color intensity." She watched the display for three minutes as new particles were detected. The brightness of the track indicated its vector.
Jurewicz manually drew in the tracks from the particles "Computer, designate manual tracks yellow six alpha and bravo for auto-tracking." Both tracks now appeared in yellow. The sensors would follow and track the particle emissions automatically.
"Zeev, call up primary on your display for a second. Check this out."
A moment later he answered. "Mmm. Nice work. Did you tell the Captain yet?"
"I'm about to. My best guess is that we have two ships running under cloak. Do the Kra'Vak have that capability?"
"Hold on, I'm checking the database now…Looks like the first action here back in the beginning of July could have been initiated by cloak capable ships. So I'd say yes."
"If so these two are leaking badly."
"Not really. Don't forget we've got the most powerful sensor suite in the fleet. How many ships would even have gotten this far on their plot?'
"Good point, Zeev. Here's what I want you to do. Pass your monitoring duties off to Marisa. We've got the volume on yellow-Six down to 10k. Get on the optical sensors and start scanning the area inside that box."
"You want me to optical scan 10k for a blacked out ship? That'll take forever."
"Call up the sensor-section shared directory. Invoke routine optiautov03. It's a little something I've been working on. It's still in Alpha, but just follow the prompts, enter in the required parameters and run it."
"You want me to run an alpha program in the production region? Fucking Swiderski would go nova if he found out."
"Look Zeev, I know this will work. The program will let the computer assist in the optical search. Just do it."
"OK, you're the boss."
"Captain, sensors here. Picking up two mysterious tracks bearing 330 mark 077. Range: 30,000 kilometers."
"I believe so, Sir. My best guess is that we have two ships running under cloak. We're trying to pinpoint both now. They are leaving a very feint trail of ion particles in their wake. Tracking them with the primary suite now and doing a visual scan."
Rai was watching them on the plot. "Good work. Designate contacts yellow one and two. Give me an extrapolation on their course." A red line pointed from the two blips to the Dortmund station.
"Still working their velocity, but the course is accurate to plus of minutes eight degrees."
"If we go to emcon two will you be able to maintain a track?"
"No, Sir. However, if they are using traditional cloak then they can't see us anyway."
"We can't take that chance. Helm, plot an intercept course that will put me 3k out from...Right here. Call that waypoint one." Rai designated a spot on the plot based on the projected target course. "Sensors, have you noticed any course change since you started tracking?"
"Do you think we will be able to pick up the track once we arrive."
"Providing that there's been no change in the target's course, yes. If they change course, we'll most likely loose them completely."
"Sir, best guess is that the targets are accelerating. We did have them at 4 MUs but they're passing through 6 now." Said Zeev.
"Go to emcon two. Set maximum acceleration for waypoint one. Fire control on weapons hold."
Jurewicz' heart sank as her sensor plot dried up. However the computer was maintaining history and projection data on gray one and two. "Zeev, how's that sensor scan coming."
"Still looking, but we'll be masking the optical array once they make their maneuver burn."
"Captain, request that helm roll the ship 45 degrees starboard so I can keep the optical array bearing on the target tracks."
"What are the odds of picking them up on optical?" Asked Rai.
"Slim, but it's better than nothing. If these two ships keep on accelerating like they are, you're going to have a very narrow window to establish a firing solution. I believe we can help out there."
"All right. Helm, roll us 45 degrees starboard."
"Aye Captain. Time to waypoint one is twenty-eight minutes. "
"Zeev I want you to refine the search parameters on that program. I'm feeding you a new light source volume. But reverse the figure for a negative image."
"What'll that do?"
"If it is a conventional black-out drive, then what we're looking for is the absence of light."
"New search parameters entered. Shit, the thing just GPF'd."
"Damnit! Send me the error message. Jurewicz called up the subroutine on her display. She went to edit mode and identified the offending line of code. "Man am I stupid or what?"
"You asking me?" Said Zeev, smiling.
"Shut up." Jurewicz identified the simple error she'd made and quickly fixed it. "Ok run the program again and reenter the search values."
"Done. The optical array is under computer control. Looks like it's working."
The Provider sped silently through space, all sensors off, in a hope to catch the mysterious contacts. Rai was positive they were heading for TG6's ships, which hung motionless off the Dortmund complex. Perhaps they were going to destroy the station? That would be a disaster. The acceleration of yellow one and two strengthened Rai's suspicions. Assuming everything held steady, Provider would come to within. Three thousand kilometers for the enemy track. There she would have perhaps a minute to inflict damage at point blank range, providing she could get a firing solution. In five minutes, they'd know.
Jurewicz and Zeev visually scanned the volume of yellow-six projected track looking for anything strange. Out of the corner of her eye she watched the auto-scan's progress as it narrowed down Yellow-Six' volume. She also eyed the timer until reaching waypoint one. On a hunch, she intervened in the program and manually adjusted the opti-scan to an even narrower window.
An LED blinked red signifying a hit. She captured the imagine on a second screen, zoomed and enhanced. Amazing. She could clearly see a flat black sphere, which, enhanced by the computer, clearly delineate d the ship's cloak field.
"Captain, I have a visual on yellow one's cloak field!"
"Put it on the main viewer." The bridge crew looked up at the oblong shaped black globe. "Incredible. Firecon, can you lock down a firing solution from that?"
"We're still looking at a 100 cubic kilometer volume, Captain."
"Sensors, can you narrow that down any further?"
"Negative, Captain. However yellow two is locked down also. We now have both globes on visual."
"Sorry, Sir, but we can't get a lock on the target as long as it's in that state. And the volume on the globes is too big for accuracy."
Jurewicz had an idea. "Captain, I need full power to the sensors. I might be able to do some thing for you."
"Go to emcon five. Comms, inform TG command of our intentions."
Jurewicz had the computer draw a track on the exact center of the dissipated ion particle stream. She then ran the globe through a prediction routine that extrapolated what the globe would look like if it weren't distorted by velocity. It displayed perfect spheres. She identified the midpoint and then reapplied the velocity filter to the model, which redistorted it to its current configuration. With the midpoint identified, she overlaid the model on the actual plot, intersecting the ion particle track through it and had an exact targeting point accurate to 100 meters. That was assuming she had guessed right.
"Fire control, I'm feeding you some targeting information. You won't be able to lock onto anything physically, but that's my prediction of the exact location of the enemy ship. Target those coordinates. Umm, that is, with your permission Captain?" Rai didn't know how she had come up with the data but he knew that Jurewicz was the best sensor chief in the service. "Go ahead, use that firing solution."
"Second targeting solution ready. Downloading to Firecon," said Jurewicz.
"Lock that one it too."
"Both firing solutions locked, Captain."
"Concentrate all batteries on yellow one. Prepare to launch missiles on manual guidance. We will designate targets when they get within 500k."
"Weapons standing by.
The Provider stabbed out with all primary and secondary batteries. Both missile launchers fed by rotary magazines, spat out missiles that sped off after the hidden foe. "Give me two more beam salvos on yellow one, then switch to yellow two."
Jurewicz studied the plot. She had both primary and secondary sensors on full power scanning all spectrums. A burst of violet and green colored pixels joined the pink pixels along the trace. Radiation and plasma. They were soon joined by other gases and some small debris fragments.
"Looks like we're scoring some hits! Reading high radiation particle exposure as well as other elements. Debris detected also."
As if someone had turned on a bright spotlight in a dark room, the Kra'Vak ship decloaked. Kain quickly classified it as a Hunter-class cruiser similar to the ships, which had initiated the first ambush back in the beginning of July. The ship was rotating about her axis to bring her rails to bear.
"There's she is Captain. The ship has dropped its cloak. Cruiser-mass, streaming atmosphere."
"Shift all beam fire to yellow two. Concentrate all missiles on yellow one."
"Missiles locked on target and released to internal guidance. Time to impact: 45 seconds."
There was a dull bang heard on the bridge.
"Hit on aft armor plating! No penetration." A second series of louder bangs followed. "Penetration of decks four and five. Crew quarters and galley venting to space. Engineering has sealed off the area."
"Weapons? Still up?
"All combat systems operational."
The bridge crew studied the plot, watching the missiles home in on the enemy ship. It was good that Rai had launched when he did, as they were well within enemy scattergun range. However the missiles took priority for the enemy point defense. Four blinked out of existence as enemy PDS destroyed them, but the remaining two found their mark. Close enough to be on visual, the bridge crew watched in awe as both warheads detonated on the enemy hull. She hung their undisturbed for several seconds until a series of internal explosions tore the ship apart. It separated into two large pieces; each rotating off along separate vectors trailing gasses debris and open flame.
"Yellow one destroyed!" Said Zeev, unnecessarily.
Amidst the cheering, Rai concentrated on the second contact. "Sensors. What about yellow two. Any hits?"
"I'm reading some radiation release but nothing more. Range to target increasing."
"Weapons keep firing all batteries until we're out of range. Missiles, fly your ordnance in on manual guidance, dispersion pattern bravo. Set for area detonation."
"Parameters confirmed, Sir."
"Increase in radiation and ion particles, Captain. Could have been another hit." Jurewicz watched the missiles disappear into the globe. They detonated simultaneously, blanketing the center point of the sphere, though no one could see the flashes as the ship's cloaking field encompassed them. There was an increase in radiation and a release of gasses and debris, but the enemy's cloaking globe remained intact.
"Sir, they're pulling out of range."
"Alert the fleet!"
"We've kept the datalink open since we started firing. They're tracking. Estimated time to firing range on Dortmund is five minutes." Rai had lost track of how close they'd gotten to Röt Hafen. The planet loomed large in the main viewer. "Begin deceleration. This way we'll be in a position to cover the TG6 if the enemy drops cloak and comes around for another pass."
"Sir, message coming in to you from Admiral Johnston."
"Johnston? What does he want? Patch him through." The image of TF Silver's commander appeared on his personnel viewer. "Yes, Sir?"
"Captain Rai, we have a problem. The assault transports are an hour behind schedule. I've got every ship committed. I need you to attack a planetary target."
"Planetary target? Sir, Provider does not carry any ortillery."
"I'm aware of that. We're uploading the firing coordinates to you now. This target must be hit within 22 minutes. I don't have the time to explain why but it is of the utmost importance. You must carry those orders out."
"Sir, what about the enemy ship we're tracking?
"Let Cadmann worry about that. You are to proceed as ordered, understand?"
"Do we have that data?"
"Aye Captain. The coordinate s place the target exactly in the city of Röt Hafen."
"Right in the city?" Don't they know the Provider doesn't have orbital grade attenuation for atmosphere? "What's our CEP on a shot like that?"
"Circular error probability with the primary batteries would be plus or minus 500 meters for the first shot."
Five hundred meters in a big city was unacceptable. But they had been ordered to carry out the attack. Rai hoped Johnston knew what he was doing. "Helm, I want you to bring us in as low and slow as you can"
"I can plot a track that will bring us to within 150 kilometers of the surface, Sir."
"Do it. I want Firecon to get the tightest solution possible."
"This will give us one pass maybe two beam salvos, Sir."
"How much time do we have?"
"Take us in."
While the Provider sped towards near orbit, Jurewicz continued to track yellow two. To her surprise, the ship passed within 200 kilometers of the Dortmund complex without firing. Perhaps they had damaged them enough to induce her captain to escape instead. She thought they were going to try a sling shot orbit past Röt Hafen and escape out into open space. However the ship's trajectory was too steep, and increased rapidly as it was pulled in by the planet's gravity. Jurewicz tracked yellow two with optical and watched as it hit the upper atmosphere. The cloaking globe extinguished and the ship became a flaming ball, dropping below the planetary horizon. Scratch two, she thought.
The Provider was now performing her own, albeit hopefully less fatal, dance with Röt Hafen's atmosphere. Again Jurewicz worked hand in hand with fire control to refine their solution in the few moments they had. There was time for two solid salvos against the target, primary beams only. In between salvos, the Provider was rocked by another series of hits.
"We're being hit by railgun batteries on the planet sir. Aft port maneuver nacelle penetrated."
"The engine is still operating at 100%. Second hit against port PDS. The battery is down."
"Weapons charged." Reported the Firecon officer.
"Fire." Provider's beams stabbed at Röt Hafen for a second time.
"Captain, Sensors. We've scored hits directly in the target areas. However several fires have been started outside the box also."
"Can't worry about that now. Let's get the hell out of here."
"No other hits from the enemy defenses, Sir." Said the tactical officer. "My guess is that their railguns have a tough time climbing out of the planet's gravity well with enough velocity to do us damage at anything but point blank range."
"Pass that on to fleet intel. Let's pull back to our original station."
Rai felt good about the thwarting the enemy attack. Jurewicz really was the best sensor chief in the service. He was thankful to have her. But what of this business of attacking Röt Hafen? Very off the cuff. He didn't understand why he'd been ordered to make the attack, but had to assume it was for some important purpose. Johnston undoubtedly knew that the Provider's CEP for a ground attack would lead to casualties in the city. He only hoped it was worth it.
Miner was kneeling on Daun's forearm to keep it immobile as he worked on the damaged hand. Daun lay back, his head swimming with painkillers. He unwrapped the filthy, bloody rag and cleaned the wound as best as he could. The Kra'Vak round had passed through the heel of his palm but only grazed the surface and cut a deep furrow. The two middle fingers were missing also. After applying an anti-bacterial spray and cutting away a few dangling shreds with his knife. He spread a coagulating salve around the damage, which would reduce blood loss. Eric affixed a sterile dressing to the bloody gash and wrapped it in a semi clean strip of shirt. That would have to do until they got back to Molitoris.
Another loud explosion rattled the walls. Fifteen minutes earlier, all hell had broken loose in the city. There had been a series of lightning like flashes followed by the crack of thunder. Eric had heard the sound before. Beam firing from orbit. Explosions had reverberated over the city, most of them nearby. He knew his own tiny explosions were added to the fray. A second salvo had hit soon after, drowning out the odd sharp barks of return railgun fire from the defense towers. Now the sky was filled with smoke from a dozen blazes, which had erupted around the city. It was just the kind of mess a demo man could learn to love. However in Eric's case, thoughts of Colin's death suppressed any feelings of satisfaction he might have had.
For the second time in a week, Lieutenant James Thompson found himself climbing unsteadily out of a damaged fighter. This Greyhound was not in as bad a shape as 211 had been, but she would not take to space for several days, nonetheless. This mission had been much worse. On the first mission none of them had knew what to expect about he Kra'Vak scatterguns. That had added to pre-mission jitters. Secondly, no one had anticipated the maniacal ferocity of the enemy's fighter defenses. Even worse, the Kra'Vak had concentrated their attacks on the ECM-capable fighters and singled them out for destruction.
While covering the rest of the strike groups, the wild weasels stood out on enemy tracking like a beacon. Thompson had been able to cover his group from the IP to the target but then had been forced to break off and fight for his life against an entire enemy squadron. No. 11 Group's escort was there in a flash, but even then, the Kra'Vak had ignored the other fighters and gone for him. It was only through luck and the help of the escort that he'd made it back alive. The Kra'Vak had pursued him back into the arms of the reception escort, where the last of them had been destroyed.
Later, after the debriefs, Thompson would learn that he was one of only three surviving ECM pilots in TF Silver. Though the Kra'Vak methods of fighting were still a puzzle to fleet intel types, it was clear that they had identified a serious threat and eliminated it in one swoop, regardless of damage suffered in other areas.
"Admiral Bellamy, incoming transmission from Admiral Johnston."
"I'll take it in the conference room." Bellamy walked into the small room that connected to the CIC. AN orderly followed him in, set a cup of coffee on the table and left. "Go ahead, send it through." The friendly open face of Admiral Johnston appeared the display. "Hello Biggles."
Johnston grinned at the reference to his old call sign. He and Bellamy had flown together as young pilots on the Illustrious, many years before. "Hello James. I reviewed the data from PRIZEFIGHT and I must say, good show old boy."
"Thank you. How are thing over at HARBINGER?"
"Well we have the orbit secure and I'm feeding off the FURVs as we speak. I'll be glad when Zergebeil gets here with the trains."
"Me also. What about Braun and the transports? Safe?"
"Yes, they're 20k out in high orbit and making final preparations for the landing. All enemy defense platforms are destroyed and we've swept orbit clear of enemy satellites.
"And Dortmund? Secure?"
"Oh I've got both facilities in hand alright, but what a bloody mess that fight turned out to be. Seventy- percent casualties amongst the boarding forces. It's an absolute horror in there. Most of the population is gone."
"What do you mean gone? Dead?"
"No, gone. Missing. Fuck if I know where. I hope it's not indicative of what we'll find on the planet."
"Yes, well don't be surprised." Said Bellamy.
"Speaking of surprised, we've confirmed the use of cloaked ships by the Kra'Vak. Luckily they were detected by our UN friends aboard the Provider and dealt with quite handily. But I'm afraid they're the only ones that could have made the interception, what with heir superior sensor suite and all that."
"I see. That is disturbing. What about your casualties?"
Heavy. Ark Royal suffered a bit from enemy fighters. God what a show they put up. Ended up being almost eighty of the buggers. I've lost about fifty percent of my fighters. Odd thing, the Kra'Vak showed an almost single-minded obsession with destroying our ECM birds. I've only got three wild weasel capable aircrew from the lot, that's survived."
"Well that's bloody odd. We'll have to think on that one."
"As you know, Roth's ship had a bad transit. He finally turned up but is still three days travel from here under sub light power. He says he doesn't want to risk the jump engine until he has the fleet trains look at it. He a bit too cautious, that Roth. Both of TG Six's patrol cruisers are gone. Both UN ships took some damage. I've also lost two destroyers. We've got a major SAR underway. The Thuringen is keeping up an intermittent bombardment against Röt Hafen."
"Did you make the TOT for that strike? "
"It was bloody close. Braun ended up two hours late. I had to send in the Provider to do the job."
"Who's the captain of that ship?"
"His name is Rai. Indian fellow. Quiet competent. They really did a bang up job today."
"I'll note them in dispatches."
"So overall it's been a successful day, if costly." I can't believe you secured the entire orbital complex. I was sure that the Kra'Vak would blow it up in your face."
"That makes two of us. But our lads did their duty quite well." Johnston leaned closer to the monitor. "By the way James. I hear you've got one of their ships?"
"Indeed I do. One of their Hunter-class cruisers. The kind that's caused us so much bloody trouble. It's in bad shape, but I've got technicians pouring all over it. In fact we've even got six live prisoners."
"You don't say?"
"Yes. They're all wounded and most of them were in their sick bay, which was the only compartment not vented to space."
"So you're headed our way?"
"Yes. Another three hours tops. Then we set up for the landings. I've already sent an initial report back to fleet HQ. I'll append yours to the full report. My staff' is working on it now."
"Awfully sorry about von Bulow. I know you were rather fond of him, James."
"Yes indeed. He was an outstanding officer. I'm afraid he'll be sorely missed."
"Quite a glorious ending though."
"Yes I suppose your right." Bellamy wasn't quite ready to discuss his friend's death yet. "Anything further?"
"No that's it. I'll be seeing you shortly. Out here."
Bellamy pushed away from the console and leaned back in his swivel chair. He took a sip of his coffee. For the first time today he was alone. Cradling his mug in both hands, he reminisced on the day's fighting. It had been quite successful. The enemy had been evicted from the system with grievous losses. Except for the fleet fighter arm, they had manageable losses on his side. They had seized orbit and secured the Dortmund station. And to top it off, he'd captured a ship. Not bad for a day's fighting. He'd had worse. Things had gone well. Almost too well. The Kra'Vak should have blown up the orbital station. And why had they singled out the ECM birds like that? There would be much for the analysts to ponder in the coming days. But right now he had an invasion to run.
Go to Choke Point, chapter 8 of Röt Hafen
Return to Bri's Science Fiction Collection