Still well away from Krogg ‘A’, Atlas and the 186th Battle Squadron were cruising in company with the Larosian Fleet.
Fox was sitting quietly – and contentedly – on the bridge, barely twenty minutes from his rendezvous with Caine’s fleet, when the frigate Phoenix appeared unexpectedly on his plot. Moving into formation with his 74s at an impressive clip, the smaller ship broadcast a warning.
The dapper little Commodore stiffened as soon as he saw the relatively up-to-date feed from the frigate – the Fifth Rate had bridged the gap from Krogg ‘A’ to the Larosian Fleet in only a few minutes, and the reason for that haste was clear enough.
The Kroggs were staging a breakout. And if they came out in force to hit the Larosians, he’d be nearly helpless to stop them. He had only his seven ships on hand, and Phoenix…
“Warn Narosh,” he turned to his Signal Officer. “Quickly.”
The First came out of energy drive at the last possible second, their guns running out immediately.
As the interference cleared from the battle plot, Caine blinked in astonishment. The Kroggs were charging towards open space faster than he’d expected, and the First had returned to a material state in their midst. It was only the skill of the First Fleet’s Cruising Masters that allowed direct collisions to be avoided.
“Shields up,” Forepaw nodded to his First Lieutenant, his demeanor calm and professional. “All guns fire as you bear. Helm, down angle fourteen degrees, port sixty. Master, give me 85 pls.”
This was no longer a grand strategic operation. Caine’s ships had moved fast, but the Kroggs had been moving faster, almost as though they’d expected this to be their opening all along. The Earthers weren’t going to be able to cut them off with a neatly organized fleet action. Instead it would be a close melee as Earther ships came to grips with whatever Kroggs they saw around them…
But the Kroggs weren’t stopping to fight. Almost a hundred were blasted to a halt by point-blank broadsides, and the rest didn’t try to fire back. Instead, they raced past the blockade force and launched themselves into hyperspace.
Seven hundred Krogg ships were heading for the Larosian reinforcements…
“Pursuit course, all ships,” Caine ordered darkly.
“I’ve got them, they’re coming at us fast from Krogg ‘A’. Looks like 700 ships, give or take…” the Sensor Chief reported quickly on Atlas’ bridge.
“Any word from Narosh?” Fox turned to his Signal Officer.
The Earther shook his head, “None, sir.”
Fox took a deep breath. What was Narosh doing? Until the Kroggs came out of hyper there was little the Earthers could do to interfere with them without severely endangering the Larosians. Spatial charges used energy-hyper reactors to significantly damage ships in hyper, but those weapons affected a wide area, and they’d surely tear the Larosians apart as easily as the Kroggs.
That would be rather counter-productive.
As far as Fox knew, the Kroggs would have to come out of hyper to engage… But then again, perhaps they could fight in hyperspace when their foe was already in there…
“The First is under energy drive, coming out after them. Looks like they have close to even numbers,” the Sensor Chief continued, and Fox frowned.
Hopefully the Fourth was redeployed by now, able to contain the rest of the Kroggs in the system…
“Hang on… the Larosian Fleet is maneuvering in hyper. They’re forming into some sort of broad wall…” the Sensor Chief scowled at his panel, trying to interpret the garbled readings reaching him through the layers of subspace.
“I think they’re going into battle mode.”
Larosian ships, just before entering action, physically expanded. Mech-anically they were designed so that their components shifted further outward from the hull to enhance armor protection of ship vitals. For anyone watching the transformation, it almost appeared as if they were animals rearing up for a fight.
Narosh and his 4,700 ships were getting ready to face the Kroggs, and they had a seven to one superiority in numbers…
Fox let out a smooth breath, then turned back to the Signal Officer, “Send to Phoenix… return to the fleet and tell Caine that Narosh is handling the breakout.”
Caine would doubtless want to get back on station as quickly as possible. With only a portion of the blockade intact and the Kroggs acting with this much guile, the First Lord would need to be there.
“Squadron to quarters, prep boats,” Fox continued after a moment, “just in case some of the Kroggs decide to come out of hyperspace to pick a fight.”
Narosh watched with a curious stare as the Kroggs came towards Lycrotar. In his many decades of battle experience he’d never witnessed such an action from his foe. This enemy force, substantially inferior to his own, had risked the security of Krogg ‘A’ simply to come out and confront him. It was either grossly stupid or deviously brilliant…
But these were Kroggs – ‘brilliant’ was seldom a word that could be associated with them. For 600 years, their dominant strategy had been ‘kill’, not ‘think and kill’. Thought and logic, combined with a healthy amount of valor and discipline had defeated them on many occasions.
Now, it seemed that with his fleet arrayed in a wall, he would simply overwhelm the assaulting Kroggs with missile fire and wipe out part of their fleet without substantial loss to his own.
It would be an acceptable start to the campaign.
Caine frowned and drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair. Narosh didn’t seem to mind fighting in hyper, as he was lining up his ships for action without making any moves to return to normal space. But the nature of this Krogg breakout was nagging at Caine – what could they possibly be trying to accomplish?
They couldn’t have planned on Match or any of Claw’s squadron being damaged when they started their movements, and even if they’d hoped to wound some of the scouting sloops they couldn’t have known how quickly and powerfully Sarah would react with the Fourth…
They certainly couldn’t have expected a fleet-sized gap at their hyper limit. Thus far the blockade had been solid, pinning the Kroggs and countering any attempt they made to build up strength at any one point of the Allied line.
So was this just an impromptu and incredibly futile rush to try to weaken the Larosians with whatever was on hand? Or was there more to these ships than he could see…
Caine turned to Forepaw, “Lab, send Phoenix back to Fox. Tell him to prepare a spread of spatial charges and to order Narosh back. I want the 186th to soften up the Kroggs before the Larosians hit them.”
Fox quickly received the orders, as Phoenix, having returned to the echelons of the First Fleet for only seconds, turned around and again bridged the rapidly closing distance between the fleets at a good clip. The order to lay a spread of charges appealed to Fox; Caine was right, there was something off about this move by the Kroggs. They had something up their sleeves, perhaps…
That’ll be the day, a Krogg in a shirt with sleeves…
Fox shook his mind out of its useless meandering, and the crack 74s of the 186th moved into position, ready to carry out their run.
If Narosh would just get out of the way.
“No response yet?”
The Signal Officer shook his head and shrugged.
They’d warned Narosh of their intention: each of Fox’s 74’s would drop a single spatial charge into hyperspace, right in the path of the Kroggs. The tactic should work easily enough since the Kroggs were coming towards him; in a stern chase scenario, getting the charges into position was rather a challenge.
The charges, which were really just small pinnaces retrofitted with energy-hyper reactors, would accelerate into hyperspace at 350 pls relative speed and collide with the nearest target.
With the additional velocity provided by hyperspace, the kinetic force of the detonation could be quite impressive.
So far these charges had been used only a few times on the blockade during counterattacks to Caine’s raids at Krogg ‘A’, but often enough to make the Kroggs wary of them. The problem was they were only good against targets in hyperspace because the physics of that layer of subspace magnified their destructive ability. They were also very tough to manufacture, so there was no point wasting them except when circumstances demanded. Moreover, the weapons were awkward to carry; large to the point of debilitation, spatial charges could be carried only by ships of the line, and even then only one to each. Flagship First Rates sometimes carried two, but loading capital ships with gunboats had been more of a priority in the last few months.
Now, as the AI-piloted charges began to warm up their engines, Fox waited with mild frustration, hoping that Narosh would back off quickly. What was he waiting for…?
Though part of Narosh’s nature continued to question the Krogg assault, he remained generally unwilling to refuse the Kroggs action. They had come to fight him – not the Earthers – and with his superiority in numbers, he had little fear of casualties.
He conveniently ignored Magnus, determined to prove the Larosians’ dominance in this war once and for all–
Narosh paused at the telepathic exclamation of one of his officers, and looked closely at the telepathic monitors being routed into his mind. All but a few of the Kroggs were retreating, or so it seemed. But why…
The last dozen enemy vessels began to accelerate towards his fleet, and finally he recognized that something seemed wrong about this entire situation. Most of the breakout group was retreating home as though they had been an escort or perhaps brought along only to confuse…
All ships withdraw immediately! Allow the Earthers to engage the targets!
Narosh’s orders were quickly transmitted through the minds of all the Larosians in the fleet, and the silver vessels managed to hold formation as they turned hard about, moving away from the Kroggs. Unfortunately they were without the necessary speed, as slower Battleships were delaying the fleet’s progress… but to break formation might risk defeat if the Krogg force came forward again…
No, the Krogg maneuver seemed too much a threat somehow – it demanded dramatic reaction…
Break formation, escape in all directions!
It struck Narosh that his sudden awareness might have come too late.
“They’re coming back towards us, sir,” Orion’s Sensor Officer said with a bit of relief.
Caine released a sigh – the Kroggs had recognized reality. Seven hundred ships wouldn’t make a difference out here against an Allied force of thousands, but they could prove quite useful in defense of their home system.
Unless they didn’t get home.
There were almost 400 spatial charges aboard the ships of the First Fleet. Caine couldn’t afford to expend all of them here, but perhaps forty wouldn’t be missed. A spread laid out by five squadrons of 74s could knock the Krogg Fleet about quite handily…
“Get Jax Furgus on the comm. I want his 74s to lay a spread of charges over the Kroggs as they come by.”
Fox experienced a moment of relief as he watched the Kroggs begin to turn away. But relief was replaced quickly with concern as a dozen Krogg vessels held course and seemed to continue with their charge. This was making less and less sense… unless these Kroggs were some sort of kamikazes…
A dozen ships could probably have evaded the blockade and reached the Larosians, even if Sarah had been in position to try to stop them. The small, fast blockade runners could conceivably have breached even the thickest blockade perimeter… and the Larosians wouldn’t concern themselves too much with such a small attack force if they saw it approaching them, having slipped through the blockade.
Then boom, they ambush the incoming Larosians.
A bit too clever, actually, though that was unimportant just now. The Larosians were trying to evade the incoming attackers, but the Krogg ships appeared to be the new, faster Dreadnoughts bred to run with Earther ships of the line. The Larosians weren’t quite quick enough…
But Fox’s 74s were.
“Prepare the charges from Dominant, Gettysburg and Fuji. Target those Kroggs… and warn Narosh.”
Narosh was just beginning to order defensive missile fire when Fox’s warning came in from normal space, and this time he heeded it.
Suddenly a massive hyper wave blinded the sensors of every Larosian ship in the fleet, and three spatial charges slipped into hyperspace. Their speed multiplied by a half dozen orders of magnitude, relative to normal space, and their guidance computers paused just long enough to mark their targets.
Then, three seeming-pinnaces slammed into three Krogg Dreadnought-sized kamikaze ships, moving at over a million pls. The resulting explosions were massive, a shockwave expanding outward in hyperspace as the Kroggs exploded.
Lycrotar was thrown into a tumble by the pulse wave, its armor absorbing the blast with some difficulty. Then, the Krogg ships that hadn’t been hit exploded in the shockwave–
Fox was waiting for the sensor screens to clear from the energy-hyper interference when Atlas bucked violently under his feet.
The 74 and its squadron-mates were in energy drive, having only paused to drop the charges, and now the wake was tossing them as though they were in a hurricane.
“We’re barely holding together… recommend we go to normal drives to ride it out!” Mister Gunth, Atlas’ seasoned old Master, looked to his Captain as soon as the 74 began to pitch.
Fox nodded immediately, “Pass that along to the squadron. All hands hold on!”
No spatial charges since the first test had caused this kind of shock in normal space… The weapons the Kroggs had been carrying in those ships had been big.