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Uncommon Crossings

Chapter 1: Light Before the Looking Glass

The command center of Pegasus Station hung heavy with tension. The lights had been dimmed to a level that made the large room appear empty save for the flashing gems of green, blue, and white lights emanating from the data terminal screens. Rear Admiral Leonidas Crichell stood with his arms propped against the huge holo-tank that dominated the center of the room. Within it swam myriad points of light; each labeled with unit designator tags and color-coded for threat and damage assessment. He paused from his ruminations to rub his hands over his face. His chin was covered in stubble, a sullen testament to the fourteen hours hed spent staring at that same tactical map trying to make sense of it all.

Norway was a relatively unimportant system in all senses of the word. No major factories to speak of and a limited import-export economy. Its only real important commodity was the rare choktu fish, a local delicacy and highly prized by interstellar connoisseurs of such things. However, since the secession of the Antarean Federation from the ULP, Norways proximity to the Thriacia wormhole cluster had made it a bone of contention for both sides. The Defacto stalemate at Orions Arm had cost the USN forces much though; losing even one-half of such an important wormhole junction to the Antareans made places like Norway that much more crucial to hold. And so the peaceful little star system was forced to become a fortress.

Missile batteries had been erected on the surface, as well as mine clusters and battle-stations placed in extended orbit. Pegasus Station itself was only a scant seven months old. In addition, the fleet assets that had been diverted to Norway were as massive as the fortifications. Crichell ticked the numbers off in his mind; thirty-seven destroyers, twenty-six battleships, eighteen light corvettes, even an entire cruiser division, and those were only that weeks arrivals!

He shook his head in disgust. Four years ago hed accepted the call back into the service to fight the supposedly short campaign against the reformed Antarean Empire and its allies, but what had once been thought to only be a short series of skirmishes had protracted into a drawn out and costly war. Long and pointless as far as Crichell was concerned, but his own personal thoughts meant nothing at this moment.

The haggard rear admiral turned his attention back to the tactical display. A dozen red triangles were advancing slowly from the northwest hemisphere of the globe that represented the sensors active radius. In turn, sixteen green triangles representing Commander Nordstrams picket fleet tracked forward to meet them. Crichell rubbed his gritty eyes with his hands; it pained him to move Nordstram and his ships against any sort of unknown force, even if they did possess superior weight and numbers. The picket fleet may have the edge numerically, but its heaviest ship was Nordstrams flag vessel Imperator and even that was only a light cruiser, hardly a threat to anything larger than a battlecruiser and far to slow to escape any sort of ambush.

Crichell brought his right hand forward to manipulate a few points in the holo-tank. The view in the bubble zoomed in to focus around the twelve oncoming enemy craft. It wasnt as surprising that the Antareans were attacking now then it was the number of ships theyd chosen to throw at such a well fortified position like Norway. Despite his reservations about tossing Nordstrams command at this unknown enemy, the honest truth was that the picket fleet existed to be expendable, a light skirmish force to determine the true strength of the enemy. However, John Nordstram was a good man and a competent leader, Crichell trusted him to see to the safety of his people, which in turn made it painful to admit that he might be sacrificing both Nordstram and his command.

A light tap on the shoulder brought the rear admiral out of his silent reverie. His arms snapped to his sides and he whirled around at stiff attention. As his eyes adjusted from the glare of the holo-tank to the dimness in the rest of the command center he could make out the soft curves of a familiar face. Janice Taylor returned Crichells hasty salute with an elfin smile on her lips. Shed been Crichells XO for years and the two shared such a stark informality with one another that it bordered on insubordination. However, the Admiral was by far the ranking officer on station, or even in-system for that matter, thus the action offered yet more proof of how frayed her superior was. Commander Nordstrams advance probes finally got a visual on those ships; theyre definitely heavy corvettes, and their engine performance ratings are giving the fleet analysis section major headaches Janice intoned, the ghost of a smile gone from her lips.

Crichell lowered his hand to his side, Thats not unexpected; the power output ratings weve been getting off those ships should have placed them at least at cruiser weight. Janice smirked, To be honest, it surprised the hell out of me too. Something about this whole setup seems fishy, especially given that there are only a dozen of them of them. After all, the standard Antarean corvette probing element calls for at least sixteen ships, not even including a proper screen.

How old is this information? Crichell asked in a significantly lower tone.

As you know, with the FTL network down in that sector, so theres a roughly twenty minute delay between anything being sent from that far out and when we actually receive it here.

He nodded slowly and slumped against the lip of the holo-tank and Janice reached forward to hand him a data-chip. This contains all the updated tactical data, the sensor techs should be piping this into the central matrix now but I figured it wouldnt hurt to make a copy, she paused for a moment before more quietly adding Just in case. Crichell said nothing but rather turned back to the swimming display of the tank.

The Antareans had definitely improved their technology, that was evident enough, but why then would they attack Norway with such a small force? Also, the choice of ships struck him as all wrong. Corvettes, no matter how numerous, were simply no match for the battleship and cruiser divisions stationed in-system. Even Nordstrams picket was more than capable of handling them and yet theyd made no signs of breaking off their run in-system. Given the power-ratings the sensor-techs had observed, these super corvettes were more than capable of outrunning the picket altogether, which made theyre choice of deliberate confrontation that much more strange. Whoever was in charge of this attack was either being very sneaky or just plain stupid, and Crichell was willing to bet heavily on the former of the two options. The only question that remained in his mind was whether or not he could see through the enemys ploy before it was too late. If he couldnt, then his forces might be in for a universe of hurt.

Commander Jonathan Nordstram glared angrily at the plot in front of him. The pulsing red triangles representing the oncoming enemy vessels knifed toward his squadron with frightening speed. It had been hours since the deadly dance of death between the two formations had begun, and the strain of waiting was eating a very tangible hole through the resolve of his crew. The light cruiser Imperator was generally a tightly run ship. However, both she, and twenty percent of her crew, had been on leave when the orders came down from above that the picket squadron assemble and head out. Jonathan was normally a reasonable man with a mild temperament, but this sort of game (which was the only honest label he could put on the evasive maneuvers of the enemy commander) was beginning to wear on his nerves.

Since the initial visual confirmation of the enemy corvette group, the two closing squadrons had fallen into a dizzying spiral of long-range feints and jabs that had left his navigation's officer, Lieutenant Hartley, in a state of almost constant motion. Despite the speed and agility of the corvettes, there was no way the enemy commander could keep up this dance indefinitely. Eventually he would either be forced to settle into an attack run or face the reserves being called up from deeper in-system. As the latter of the two options would surely spell doom for the raiders, Nordstram was convinced that the enemy would eventually commit himself while he had a chance of winning. But winning what? While he still had no idea what sort of madman the enemy commander was, he knew just as well as anyone else that challenging the defenses in Norway was definitely not a good idea no matter how fast his squadron might be.

Even though Nordstrams picket squadron was a strictly ad-hoc affair consisting of his own light cruiser Imperator and her sister-ship Narwhal, a pair of aging Ranger class frigates previously belonging to Norways in-system patrol before the establishment of Pegasus station and its defensive batteries, as well as the corvettes Rapacious, Shining Path, and Gryphon, it was still nothing to be taken lightly. The cruisers alone had seventy-two separate missile and torpedo launchers between them. In addition, destroyer elements of the 38th Heavy Assault Division had been recently introduced to fill out the ranks. Each of those ships added another dozen launchers to the mix, nearly doubling his offensive throw-weight. Admittedly, the half the destroyers were of the older Perseus class and lacked the newer and much smaller Harpoon 7c launchers, which meant that the actual recycling time of their individual salvos would be more than twelve seconds longer than the rest of the squadrons. The heavier energy armament destroyers of that class enjoyed more than outweighed this deficiency. In particular, the inclusion of a large bore rail-gun as the ships main offensive weapon.

Giving them the short-range offensive punch of a warship many orders of magnitude larger than them. A rail-gun, despite its huge power and tonnage requirements, was one of the most effective ways of breaching a ships particle-shielding at close range. Rail-guns were generally meant as the armament for much larger warships, which possessed both the power and tonnage to spare for the massive weapon. The highly charged super-magnets were capable of accelerating a projectile to unheard of velocities. Therefore, the magnetically charged, depleted-uranium slugs, which the gun fired, were more than capable of putting rather large holes in even the stoutest of armor-plating.

In fact, the development of particle shielding itself had been a fluke, or more precisely, an unforeseen benefit of the starships inertial compensator. Since it was literally impossible for human physiology to withstand the enormous inertial pressure generated by even the lowest possible acceleration a modern starships engine was capable of, a method of shielding the occupants of a ship from the extreme physical forces that propelled the craft through space was necessary before high-speed manned space-flight could be possible.

The breakthrough had come when engineers and physicists developed the first inertial compensator. The idea was simple to imagine; As a ships plasma fueled drives powered up energy was shunted through special emitters and rerouted into a field of stressed gravity around the craft, allowing the inertial force to flow around the ship instead of through it, much like air passing around the wing of an atmospheric aircraft. The actual shape of the field itself was undefined in the practical sense since the gravity generated was only a force and not easily define-able in pure physical terms, however particles from nearby space and from a ships own drive exhaust were attracted to the gravitational field. Thus a particle-shield was formed.

In all practicality, the density of the shield on even the largest warship was not enough to stop anything larger than a small meteorite from slapping into its hull, however, it did provide a rather wide dispersion area for energy weapons like lasers and particle cannons. Since energy weapons relied primarily on excited particles (as in the case of lasers which utilized charged photons) to transfer their energy into high intensity beams, the particle-shield acted essentially like a blanket, soaking up and dispersing this energy before it connected with the ships hull. However, its dispersion ability was only finite.

As a general principle, the act of transferring energy knocked particles out of the gravitational loop formed by the compensator, and since any gaps were immediately compensated for, due to the natural tendency of particles to try and maintain a uniform distance away from all their neighbors, in this way, field strength and cohesion were lost through each consecutive hit.

This effect was particularly exploited by plasma-cannons, which utilized a starships own power-core to draw volatile plasma into a highly polarized, magnetic pocket that was then ejected at insanely high speed toward a target. Of course the magnetic containment field was hardly static and even the slightest stress, such as that which was generated by the particle-field itself could cause it to rupture, spilling its fiery contents. This in turn made kinetic strikes the most effective way of breaching a starships hull, thus making solid projectiles the weapon of choice for long-range stellar engagements.

Despite the merry hell the particle-shield played with onboard sensors and tracking equipment, or perhaps in spite of it, a solid object could easily pass through even a high intensity particle-field with little difficulty. Which meant weapons like missiles, torpedoes and rail-guns were free to make their attack runs unhindered and deliver their payload with no interference.

Which meant if push came to shove, however rag-tag the group seemed, Nordstrams little flotilla was more than capable of dishing out some serious hurt on anyone who just happened to get in its way. Perhaps it was the thought of constantly living on the edge of danger or the knowledge that they would be first to enter the fray should an attack come that lent the small unit a sense of pride in themselves and their duty, he mused. But even as his gaze whisked around the cramped bridge, the frazzled commander could easily see that his crew were as visibly drained as he felt.

Skipper! barked Ingred Brentworth, the chief sensor operator, jarring Nordstrams wandering mind back to the present, The enemy ships just increased their relative acceleration, looks like theyve finally committed to a run. The hawk-faced operator turned back to her terminal and her hands danced over the keys. Captain Angelina Chu stood up from her command chair ahead of Nordstram and turned to him abruptly. Looks like this is it then Commander, she said half-apologetically, shall I bring us up to full battle-alert?. Nordstram nodded strongly and bore himself up in his seat.

Both he and Captain Chu had worked together for years. Hed been her CO at Orions Arm and had somehow managed to get both she and Imperator out of that hellish nightmare in one piece. Ingred, can you feed me the ETA till we hit torpedo range? Chu shouted from the command deck. One moment Captain the sensor operator said quickly, her fingers flying to keep up with the rapid stream of new data coming from the navigational systems. Both Chu and Nordstram watched apprehensively as the timer ran down slowly. It would be another twenty minutes of silent agony as the two forces raced toward one another. Nordstram schooled his features and cast eyes briefly to the floor of the flag-deck to catch a glimpse of the USN emblem painted on the deck-plates in dull, silver tones. If there is a god in heaven, I hope to come to him in peace and without the sacrifice of anymore brave souls. He murmured silently before taking his seat in the command-chair.

Angelina Chu noted her commanding officers reverence with a tight smile. There was deadly work to be done. This is it boy-o! Flight Officer Dennis Mcallahan shouted over the clamor of Flight Deck 3. The young pilot grinned broadly in reply and ran a hand through his shock of bright blond hair before putting his helmet on. Allan DeVries grinned back as he fastened the last clamps on his flight-suit.

Seems so Dennis he intoned mildly, as the two jogged toward the mammoth births that housed their machines. Looks like those damned Anty bastards have decided to push, maybe we can show those vacuum-suckers that the ULP fighter corps aint somethin ta laugh at Mcallahan growled. Allan was silent, his stomach had begun to twist itself into knots of apprehension. The older FO didnt seem to notice his companions change of expression as they neared births. I hope yeah know, thisll mark my thirtieth flight with the corp since this damned war began. Mebe after we get back we can have a lil party on account of my luck. Allan forced a convincing smile and another nod, the uneasiness in his stomach only increased as they approached their respective machines.

They reached the hydraulic lifts that would raise them to the cockpit hatches without further talk, despite the earlier shows of bravado both men were incredibly sober before battle. The USN fighter corps had a high attrition rate. Even higher was that of assault-mecha pilots, who often had to work in close quarters to heavily armed capital ships. Allan paused a moment at the lift to stare at his craft in awe. The Velius was certainly an older model, but this particular one was a newer craft. From the freshly painted white field with Third Squadrons blue fox-head emblazoned on the left breast, just beneath aperture for the chest-mounted repeating laser. The status of both he and his machine was clear; Unblooded.

FO Macallahan caught his eye from further down the bay just as he toggled the lift-switch. The older pilot saluted him hastily before ducking through the hatch in the assault-units belly. Not quite sure how to respond with the other man now out of sight, Allan turned and punched the four-digit code into the small touch-pad next to the hatch. The locking mechanism clicked and the sharp hiss of escaping atmosphere filled his ears as the flat hatch-plate slid open. Inside the armored battlesuits interior, Allan seated himself in the pilots chair and slapped a button that sealed his crafts outer-hatch before pulling his cognition-helmet over his head. A few seconds passed as the neck-pieces automatically hinged and locked together, another handful of seconds for the mechas internal life-support to start pumping in fresh oxygen.

Allan blinked twice before activating the main-power unit. The machine hummed as it powered up. The once blank pseudo-view ports flicked to life, offering him a 360 degree view of the bay. He ran through the preflight checks before calling in his readiness on the squadron-wide com frequency. All of this was done in something of a blur as he attempted to keep his hands from shaking as he gripped the twin flight-yokes. The squadron commanders voice crackled over the com, confirming readiness reports and adding reminders of the orders laid down during the hurried briefing some fifteen hours before. Allan half-heard them as the brace holding his unit squealed as it moved the Velius towards the grav-catapult. He swallowed once and looked left to see the familiar shape of Macallahans craft to his right. He remembered the older Flight Officers brash confidence and silently ordered his stomach to quell itself. As the countdown lights of the catapult slowly cycled from red to green, he saw a small figure waving at the departing mecha from the control room which jutted down from the ceiling above the catapult. He smiled faintly and raised the hand of his mecha to the sensor-packed head of the machine in a mechanical mockery of a salute before hunching the assault-units knees to brace for the impact of the catapult launch. He saw the figure return the salute just as the countdown-light hit green and his craft was quickly accelerated into the cold emptiness of space. The unease of his stomach was replaced by a disorienting emptiness as the universe spun around him. But there was killing to do.

Something in the back of his mind took over and he oriented his craft along Imperators horizontal axis and rocketed off to his designated position in the fighter-screen. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, offering a short prayer to a god hed not thought to look to in years. With any luck hed be sharing a drink with a friend when this was all over.

Chapter 2: Baiting the Tiger

It was a gravitational anomaly, the USN sensor-techs would later say, that caused them to miss the mixed Antarean squadrons of Taskforce Harp lurking on the outskirts of the system. A host of other platitudes and excuses would be offered to explain away the fact that they just werent prepared for the advances in their enemys stealth technology, for they had no reason to be. Who would be foolish enough to sneak such a large force into a system as well-defended as Norway? In actual fact the reasons and identity of the attacks mastermind would matter little to the officers later in charge of the inquiry into the incident. Officers whose only real job would be to find a palatable set of feet at which heap the blame. No, this particular lapse would be filed away as yet another instance of trickery to be repaid in full at a later date.

With all the silent smoothness of a wolf hunting across open tundra, the warships of Taskforce Harp slid silently through space, knifing their way quietly in-system. From the command-bridge of his battlecruiser, Rear-Admiral Hermion Broslos IV watched his holo-display with amusement. Commander Dietrov had proven a good choice to tie up the in-system picket, he mused, watching the icons on the plot dance a dizzying pattern of feints and jabs as the two opposing squadrons jousted with one another in deep-space, all the while moving closer and closer to the hypergrav-limit. He smiled faintly, no doubt whoever was in overall command of Norways defenses would be wondering just what sort of game Dietrov and his corvettes played at. It is said that baiting a tiger is hardly a game to be played lightly, he thought to himself coldly.

He called up some additional information on the system through his neuro-link with the ships core data-brain. The mission-clock ticked down with an unfathomable slowness, it would be approximately twenty minutes before the second phase of the operation went into action. He smiled again; it felt good to finally be in action again. In the three years since the war stagnated hed bounced around from command to command, always well-behind the front line, and always nursing a hatred for the elitist and wholly ineffective USN which had taken his wife and son from him more than a decade earlier.

Yes, he concluded, it felt decidedly good to be taking the fight home to an enemy which, for years, had boasted of its own infallibility. And to be doing it in an entirely Antarean-built command was nearly more than hed ever dreamed possible. However proud it may have been, before the Great Betrayal and the ensuing conflict broke out, the Antarean Federated Space Navy had not boasted more than two-hundred native hulls to its flag. With the defection of the USNs 2nd and 3rd Protectorate fleets to the newly reformed AISN, a vast amount of captured USN materiel was suddenly added to the Antarean arsenal and used to full effect in the following years. But as war began to grind through even those aging (if still solid) hulls, the need for new ships arose. A need which was addressed by the newly acquired manufacturing power of the liberated Imperial worlds, and so it was that Broslos was awarded the unique honor (and distinct pleasure) of being offered the command of one of the newly built squadrons and charged with the task of taking war to the enemy.

And what a glorious war it shall be. He thought with finality. With the rest of his bridge crew interfacing with the core-brain, he simply needed to think his orders through his neuro-link for them to be disseminated throughout the rest of the squadron. It was time to move things along. Noting the proximity of the circling squadrons to the hypergrav-limit, he ordered Dietrov to cease his dancing and make pass at the picket squadron, a move that could largely be construed as forced suicide had they been traditional corvette designs. Broslos smile twisted into a grinning death mask in the dim red-light cast off by the command-decks neuro-interface station and adjacent holo-display. It was time to get things underway, and he had no intention of making the USN bastards wait any longer for justice.

The stars themselves seemed to wink out of existence as Commander Torid Dietrov slipped the control receptors of the neuro-brace from a dermal-jack at the base of his skull. In the holo-screen that compromised the forward end of the command-deck of his vessel, Errant Virtue, the ragged line of the USN picket-squadron stretched out in front of him, bristling with deadly energy arrays and exposed missile and torpedo tubes. Though only visible through the highly magnified visual feed being piped to the command-decks view-screens, the sheer destructive power of the arsenal being leveled in the direction of his ships was enough to sober the usually jovial commander even more. Peering closely at the craft in the display (more out of nervousness then actual intent), he studied the Spartan, almost utilitarian design of the enemy warships. Even when compared to the sleek elegance of Antarean craft the enemys ships were still impressive to behold, swimming through the inky blackness of deep-space like prowling, stellar sharks. And oh what sharp teeth they had, he thought ruefully.

His mission, challenging the defenses of Norway, seemed like suicide when it was first proposed to him. Taking a single heavy-corvette squadron into one of the most heavily defended systems in the star-cluster, and an important wormhole junction no less, was hardly appealing to the fifteen-year veteran of the Antarean Navy. The fact that his incursion was little more than a feint, and that he was under orders to stay away from the systems core had done little to improve his mood, it would make no difference in the end as it only meant that the systems defenders had to chase him down before they wiped he and his command from existence. And so his apprehension had only grown during the planning stages of the attack, that is, until he saw the specifications of the ships under his command.

The new Seshat class heavy corvettes were marvels of Antarean design. Sleek and beautiful, their curving, tan and mauve colored hulls were dotted with ion-arrays, kinetic point-defense clusters, and missile tubes. What made them even more exciting werent just the weapons outside, but within. Radical advances in engine technology and micro-technologies allowed the corvettes to generate unheard of amounts of energy, not only tremendously boosting their speed, but allowing far more powerful weapons to be included both on and inside of the hull itself. Packed around a single, capital-class ion-beam cannon, a weapon usually reserved for the heaviest of cruisers and super-capital craft, the Seshat was a deadly opponent even by itself. But the marvels didnt end there.

Utilizing the new drone-brain technology, each Seshat also boasted a four drone squadrons with associated controller-units, each of which were capable of boosting the effective range and coordination of drone-craft by five-fold the previous amount. The drones themselves were hardly ignored either. Besides the new heavy-attack chassis slowly being produced in larger and larger numbers (and thus making their way to more and more units of the fleet), each of the new heavy corvettes were capable of deploying and maintaining a dozen of the new Baath class Particle-Density Boosting Parasites, of PDBPs. When activated, these drones formed a lattice network of field-density boosters for the ships particle field, giving the Seshat the shield strength of a craft several orders of magnitude larger, and generally served to further foul enemy scanners and target acquisition systems, as well greatly protect the ships hull from energy attacks.

Even taken separately, each of these improvements were more than capable of making his squadrons chances of survival in this particular engagement that much higher. But taken altogether, it made Dietrov feel almost a bit sorry for the destruction he was about bring down on the enemy commanders head. Almost. The plot in front of him flashed an ominous red, and a digitized transmission from one of the sensor techs informed him that the enemy ships had just begun deploying their fighter-screen and in another two minutes, his corvettes would pass into the enemys torpedo envelope.

That was something that irked him deeply. Despite all the advancement in Antarean technology, USN craft still not only held the edge in missile and torpedo technology, but also had superior manned fighters. In addition, while ton for ton, the new AISN hulls were more lethal then theyd ever been, they were still inferior at range to existing USN craft of the same class. Or at least they had been, till now. It was time to finally test some of the Imperial Engineering Corps latest toys to see if they really did live up to their promises.

Turning to look at his XO, Vahn Eralis, a particularly dour looking man with a partially shaven head, for a moment, he centered his attention back on the plot ahead of him. Bring the shields up to maximum power and prepare to launch PDBPs and all point-defense drones in thirty-five seconds, he paused momentarily to adjust his skinsuits neck-lining before continuing. I want the entire squadron to establish a holding pattern just outside their missile envelope, at which time launch all drone clusters and proceed with plan Babel-Zero-Zero. His order given, Dietrov sank back into the recesses of his command chair and watched as the technicians, operators, and control-officers of the bridge-crew went about their assigned duties. In a few minutes they would either all be resting peacefully, knowing their duties ad been carried out correctly and their equipment had functioned as well as promised, or they would be dead and thus in no position to know or think anything. And that, he concluded, was the essence of stellar-war itself. Thoughts of success and failure were immediately buried as he prepared himself for the hell he and his subordinates were about to unleash.

Chapter 3:Storms of Iron and Fire

Hunched over the lip of the holo-tank, Leonidas Crichell struggled to make sense of the enemys latest series of baffling moves. For the last four hours since making visual contact with the picket, the enemy corvette squadron had flitted around the edges of the systems grav-limit, baiting the much larger ships of Commander Nordstrams command but never truly committing to action. Nordstram, under orders to prevent the enemy craft from penetrating the systems interior, had been forced to match the devilishly fast corvettes move for move, always placing himself and his command between their enemy and its assumed target, the vulnerable orbital construction-platforms that still ringed Nor Alpha, the central fortress-world that was to be the backbone of Norways defenses. And so the harrowing dance between both forces had played out, with all semblances of a bear toying with an over-arrogant wolf. But the dance had ended now.

Upon the initial arrival of the enemy ships, it had been difficult to determine their exact type and distribution due to the supposed malfunction of key gravitic scanning equipment, located on Basis, one of the many moons that orbited the gas-giant of Nor Beta. Nor Beta was the largest sister planet of Alphas, and its orbit was farther removed from the systems core then any other local planetary body. Basis served as a fighter-base, supply-depot, and communications post and acted as the central node for the FTL com-net for the Thriacia cluster. Connected via a series of deep-space com-satellites, the huge focusing and broadcast arrays on Basis were able to communicate nearly instantaneously with the other worlds and were key factors in maintaining the coordinated defense of those systems. Which was why the naval communications facilities on Basis were hardened deep underground and a massive fighter-base was located directly above it. The moon was a tough nut to crack, and with the extensive mine-field hemming attacking craft into a single approach, lined with an overwhelming number of defense fortresses, torpedo and missile satellites, all matter of automated guns, and backed by over four-dozen squadrons of ground-based interceptor-craft (not to mention the massive fleets stationed above Nor Alpha), it was potential suicide to attempt an assault without first neutralizing the other in-system threats. But this, of course, was something a handful of corvettes were incapable of, which meant the real stroke would come from somewhere else. Crichell considered ordering the fleet to shift its defensive line to cover the approach to Basis, in case the enemys real intentions lay there, but with the ships under his command stretched as thinly as they were covering the construction operations in-system, further dividing that strength by attempting to cover the distance of space between Nor Alpha and Nor Beta might give whatever additional enemy elements that might be lurking outside the grav-limit just the sort of sign of weakness theyd need to make a pass at his fortifications. He grimaced at the thought.

Even though there were technically thirty-four forts operational in-system, less fourty-five percent of them were manned by more than a skeleton crew and fully armed, a testament to the recent man-power shortages being felt by the navy after the massive losses at Orions Head. Even the ships in orbit were in need of shakedown cruises and all manner of equipment checks and combat trials. In that respect, Nordstrams picket constituted the most experienced unit he had aside from his own command-staff and the recently transferred Seventy-Eighth Assault Squadron to whom hed delegated the defense of Basis.

It was a lucky thing that the enemy was unaware of Norways relative weakness by comparison to the somewhat more threatening systems in the sector (for which Crichell was ostensibly charged with the defense of). The mere fact that a majority of his ships were locked into a strictly defensive formation around the orbital and sub-orbital construction-plats and could not stray too far away from Nor Alpha meant that any attacker would have run of the system, mainly because he could not afford to uncover the fragile, orbital assets. Coupled with the weakness of the existing forts, this severely hamstrung the responsiveness of Crichells units. Still, if the plots were to be believed, the corvette-squadron had chosen to dash itself against Nordstrams picket before the mixed assault-ship and destroyer units hed summoned from in-system could completely encircle them. He wondered briefly just what made the enemy commander so confident, or suicidal to attempt such a thing. Given the USNs superiority in torpedo and missile systems, he doubted if many of the corvettes would survive the opening salvos from theyre cruiser opponents.

At any rate, Nordstram was now piping his squadrons sensor data to the techs of Pegasus Station via FTL grav-pulse, so at least theyd have a good grasp of just what sort of improvements the Antareans had made to their systems. And maybe afterwards I can get some sleep. He smiled to himself briefly wished Janice were here to remind him of his duties, but she was buried much deeper in the complex then he, operating the secondary command-post at the very heart of the station. He watched as the corvettes slowly slid into torpedo-range and waited for the fireworks to begin.

Jonathan Nordstram eyed the small mission-clock built into the arm-rest of his command couch. Never having been a man of aesthetics, he could not quite appreciate the view being offered to him from the forward display when he gave the order for his squadron to fire. Sitting in the rough center of the firing line formed by the heavier elements of the picket-squadron, Imperator and Narwhal blossomed fire as their combined seventy-two torpedo-batteries fired in unison. They were quickly joined by the aging Rangers who added another two-dozen torpedoes a piece. The corvettes, destroyers, and assault-ships which made up the pickets screening elements wisely held their fire. Should the corvettes survive the long-range duel which the squadrons heavier ships were more partial to, theyd close the distance fast and try to engage separately and from different angles, making the slow-moving torpedoes far less effective.

In all, one-hundred and twenty-four projectiles rocketed toward the enemy squadron. Nordstram was wary of the Antareans new improvements and the willingness to die displayed by the attacking squadrons reckless charge into the teeth of his batteries, so hed only targeted the first six ships in his opening barrage, trusting the second and third salvos to distribute fire more evenly among the survivors. As it was, each of the targeted corvettes faced nearly twenty-one torpedoes a piece, more than enough to swamp the point-defense capabilities of the entire squadron. What was more, upon reaching terminal distance, each torpedo would split off into four-separate warheads, seeded with ECM blockers, and sensor decoys to foul the point-defense systems of the corvettes. Thus, all six targeted ships would be facing four-hundred and ninety-six plasma-warheads. He held a neutral expression as the second salvo rippled away from his ships, there was nothing pretty about the massacre that was about to occur.

Flight Officer Dennis Macallahan was not a praying man. In fact, he hadnt knelt in prayer since the earliest days of his childhood, before Crusader insurgents detonated a bomb in the cathedral he and his parents visited regularly. Theyd perished in the blaze, Dennis survived. Carrying a deep hatred for the Crusaders and their clandestine Antarean backers, hed joined the USN as soon as hed come of age, but had only seen active combat duty in the latest campaign. Before the disaster at Orions Head, hed been a simple technician, responsible for only the most basic maintenance on fighters and assault-craft aboard the battleship Frozen Hammer. When the Hammer was caught off-guard by an Antarean destroyer detachment and destroyed, Dennis had been forced to escape in a partially operational interceptor and was later picked up by a USN patrol-boat.

After that incident hed applied for a transfer to the fighter-corps and was accepted, but instead of working with strike-craft, as hed hoped, the newly promoted FO was relegated to the mechanized-assault corps, essentially cannon-fodder. But even here Dennis had excelled, surviving twenty-nine consecutive missions with over one-hundred and ninety-two kills to his name. He was an ace, and now one of the oldest mech-heads in the division. But after a chance, violent confrontation with an off-duty commodore, the promotion to the Fighter-Interceptor Corps never came and neither did any promotion past Flight Officer. So he was stuck, bumped off the fast-track with a large black-mark on his record that would keep him an FO till he either retired or punched-out in combat (the latter being increasingly more probable then the former).

He watched as the second salvo lit off from the ships behind the screen, sped past his formation and zeroed in on the corvettes right behind their brothers. He smiled assuredly as his sensors informed him that the warheads of the first wave had hit their terminal attack vectors and broken apart into their component sub-munitions. But instead of the tell-tale ripple-pop explosions that one expected of plasma-warheads detonating inside a particle field, he watched as the torpedoes went haywire and slammed into one another. Holy shit. He muttered to himself, the rumors hadnt even been close to the mark, the damned Antys really had beefed up their ECM significantly.

A few birds still made it through the maelstrom of fratricide but were easily picked off by the corvettes automated PD guns. However, nothing easily shrugs off four-hundred missiles. Despite the ECM interference and the highly accurate counter-fire, a few warheads still slipped in. Dennis cheered inside as he saw the lead ship take several hits as it attempted to roll out of the path of the torpedo swarm, then belch fire as several torpedoes from the second salvo lost their original target, then locked on to it as it obscured another ship. Damaged but not out of the fight, the corvette dropped back to let the undamaged ships of the second line shield it from any additional fire. He was stunned, only one ship damaged out of twelve from that volume of torpedo fire? What in gods name had those thrice damned Antarean bastards done to increase their combat potential so much? For the first time in a long time, the once cocky FO felt the cold grip of dread seize his stomach, which began to twist uneasily in its vice-like hold on it. If theyd deliberately chosen to engage them head on and were unworried about missile fire, then maybe they felt that they had the firepower to deal with the entire squadron. The thought did little to calm him down, and he longed to twist his flight yokes around, slam the throttle and head deeper in-system to the relative safety of the forts. But he had a duty, a duty that involved taking the fight to the corvettes before they had a chance to close with the larger, more vulnerable ships in the task force. But he had no orders to do so, and he was a good soldier. So he stayed where he was, with both eyes glued to the stalwart shapes of Imperator, riding comfortably behind its destroyer and corvette screen.

And so it was that Dennis Macallahan had his attention riveted to his rear pseudo-view and thus, he failed to notice the unusual movement on his short-range, visual sensors. He would never know just what it was that alerted him to the presence of the stealthed interceptor-drone, and in all honesty he wouldnt try to remember, but he peripherally noticed something amiss, and instinctively stomped down hard on the left rudder-pedal and flipped his mecha on its head, and watched as the blazing red beam from the drones particle emitters filled the spot hed occupied before with highly-charged, ionic death. He surprised himself by barking a warning across the com-net as the space around him erupted in a fury depleted-uranium tracers, stuttered laser fire and sporadic missile-bursts.

The drone that had fired on him first had circled back around, its cowled sensor-iris glowing a dull gold as it stabbed out at Dennis Velius with its particle cannons. Though hardly as fast or as agile as the nimble drone that menaced it, his craft was far more heavily armed. Slamming down hard on his lateral boosters, he punched the mecha up relative to the orientation of a nearby corvette, identified as Rapacious. The drone once again scooted under his ride, but this time he was ready, and arming the Spark IX Cluster-Missile System built into recesses in the assault-units thigh and calf-armor, he drew a deep breath and accelerated after it.

The offending drone was joined by four of its brethren which converged to form a pack and now boiled back around at him in another twisting attack-run. The targeting computer worked fast as he painted all five. He stroked the firing stud and immediately accelerated up, pushing his thrusters until he could hear the keening of the engine beneath him.

The Spark IXs mini-missiles seemed to pour out of their launchers and twisted downward toward the attacking drones. The sudden violence of the attack proved too much for the core-brain governing three leading drones which attempted to break off too quickly for their own acceleration to catch up with. Their chaff flashed futility as the Velius' projectiles homed in on their sensor signatures. It was too little too late.

The lead drone caught nearly fifteen of the tiny missiles on the belly of its fuselage which detonated instantly, showering the surrounding space with rapidly cooling globules of metal, the rest didnt have time to break away as the storm of missiles blew them apart. The remaining two drones punched through the center of the rapidly expanding cloud of gas and bore down on Macallahans Velius, spitting particle-fire with a vengeance. He juked his mecha hard to the left, then right, and managed to twist the Mordell ASC-22 Vulcan-rifle in his right-hand to sight one of the remaining drones buzzing him from behind.

He opened fire without hesitation, riddling the first craft with bullets before its advanced core-brain had a chance to register what was happening to it. As the drone fell away and exploded, warning klaxons blared in his cockpit. Luckily he managed to get the oblong, tritanium shield, which constituted his machines left fore-arm up in time to soak up some of the plasma fire being streamed at him by the remaining drone. He cut loose with the tri-barreled repeating-laser built into the Velius chest and managed to ward the drone off.

As the craft tried to dart around the bulk of his Velius, Dennis carefully lead his rifle along its path and pounded out a steady stream of shells. The leading wing of the sleek, angular ship was struck by his pattern of fire and the drone spun wildly out of control, its vertical exhaust ports struggling desperately to stabilize its course. Dennis triggered his lasers again and walked his shots into the out of control craft, which exploded with a satisfying abruptness. With that he accelerated off into the swirl of battle, looking for more drones to destroy.