Fleet Commander Recon Chapter Twenty-Six

The following is a free chapter from the fourth book in my Starships at War military science fiction series Fleet Commander Recon

“Negative, ops. As badly as I’d like to know what’s going on in Prairie Grove, we need to get back to the–”

“Sir, you need to see this.”

Captain Flynn stood as if encountering the treasures of Caribbean myth for the first time. The rest of the bridge crew of the Constellation was as silent as an abandoned church. There on the tactical display was a gigantic empty area of space where the ship’s navigational computers said Bayone Three was supposed to be, but wasn’t.

“Navigator, can you confirm our position, please?”

“It’s not an error, sir. There’s no planet in Bayone Three’s orbit, and I can’t get a fix on Revenge. She is out of her patrol course, and the SRS board is picking up residuals from both impact and weapons fire in the vicinity.”

Flynn contemplated the readings for a moment. Its possible Revenge was fired on, but it would mean the attackers would have had to come from either Blackburn or Rho Theta, positions which were inside Core space. How would enemy vessels attack from inside Skywatch territory?

Nevertheless, the combination of the readings and the missing planet were conclusive, whatever the mysteries behind the reality. Flynn’s first duty was to the safety of his own command.

“Tactical, take us to alert condition two, stand by battle stations missile. Screens to maximum. Passives only. All electronic warfare systems to full spectrum operation. Reactor crews engage radiation protocols. Pilot, bring us to new course three four five mark sixteen, all ahead one-half.”

“Aye, captain. Coming to new course three four five.”

“SRS and tactical. I’m putting you on the task of finding Revenge. Find out where the battle started and where it ended. If we can locate Pat’s ship, we may be able to lend assistance.”

Both junior officers acknowledged Flynn’s order. The still damaged missile cruiser re-entered the Bayone system like a housecat exploring a new house. All her systems were on a hair-trigger, ready to deploy a wide variety of highly destructive weaponry at the slightest provocation.

“Signals, open Skywatch priority hailing frequencies. Scramble keyed and wideband only.”

“Aye, sir. You’re on.”

The wideband transmitter made it possible for a warship to transmit without necessarily giving away her position.

“Revenge, this is Constellation on Skywatch priority frequencies. Please come in.”

The bridge crew listened as the range indicator sounded quietly from the forward observation station.

“Revenge, this is Constellation. Captain Raymond Flynn on priority frequency. Respond.”

The captain looked over at his signals officer, who shook his head. Flynn thumped the arm of his conn chair and turned back to the viewscreen.

“Tactical, let’s get some eyes and ears out there. Spin up a Type III LECWAR drone. Minimum profile. Launch to a holding range at one million miles. At T-plus 180, launch an offset relay and lock a guidance perimeter at 400,000 miles, polarity negative.”

“Aye, captain. Jets request in 30 seconds.”

“Weps, I want two Hemlocks at station keeping one click off the guidance perimeter at 40 degree offsets, one at mark 100 the other at negative mark 100. Scramble activation and configure dead man triggers. Set pulse repeaters at 300 second intervals.”

“Acknowledged. Weapons deployed.”

“Alright navigator, I want a slow pass of the system. You see anything bigger than a running shoe out there, and I want to know about it, affirmative?”

“Yes sir.”

One of the most powerful features of missile ships was the fact their weapons were extraordinarily “intelligent” and capable of operating on their own to a certain degree. Like the guided and “heat-seeking” weapons of ancient atmospheric aircraft, the missiles launched and controlled by the Tombaugh-class destroyers and their more advanced variants were highly formidable on their own.

Raymond Flynn’s training had been in deep space guidance systems prior to his enrollment at Skywatch Academy, so it stood to reason he would end up involved in missile technology on some level. It also turned out he was more than a little capable of thinking strategically, which qualified him for command-track assignments and eventually gave him command of a ship packed to the bulkheads with the equivalent of a long-range missile supermarket.

His orders on entering the system were bog-standard preparatory steps for a missile destroyer. The reason they were so effective was because the ship, the two drones and the two missiles he had just launched all carried fully capable electronic warfare and targeting systems. If any of the units “saw” anything unusual, it would be transmitted to the rest of the perimeter units instantly. Then the enemy would face a Hobson’s choice. They could go after Constellation, which would invariably lead to engagement by one or the other of the Hemlock anti-matter warheads, or they could try and engage the perimeter units, which would give Flynn’s warship an opportunity for a first shot at an advantageous range.

The foundation of the whole system was the offset relay. It was capable of creating a spherical zone inside which datalink and radio transmissions could be flashed from one point to another at speeds exceeding the speed of light. The technology was a miniaturized version of the same principles used by the jump gate network: namely the permanent wormholes that allowed physical objects to transcend normal spacetime and “fold” their physical location from one point to the next. For the object itself, “time” passed inside the wormhole, but did not pass in normal space, meaning that for all intents and purposes, as long as a transmission started or ended at the offset relay, it was received instantly at any point inside the three-dimensional perimeter by any unit with a synchronized connection. So far, Skywatch hadn’t yet been able to create an extemporaneous version capable of providing spontaneous FTL communications from one arbitrary point to another, but for the time being, setting up a semi-permanent electronic frontier in deep space was effective enough. Instantaneous communications between starships gave Skywatch captains a mind-boggling tactical advantage.

“Forward arc complete. No contacts to a range of two million miles, sir.”

“Very well, navigator. Tactical, let’s re-calibrate at Y plus one click. Pilot, ahead one-half. Steady as she goes.”

Flynn’s formation moved forward gradually, with the relay, probe and both Hemlock missiles flying in sync with their mothership. The Constellation kept her emissions to a minimum, using her passive scanners and sensors to “listen” to whatever was out there in the cold, empty expanse.

The navigational hazard alarm sounded. The relatively quiet sound caused everyone on the bridge to tense.

“Quietly, tactical.”

“Aye.”

Flynn’s tactical officer redirected the warship’s electronic systems, focusing on a point in space not far from where Bayone Three should have been, but wasn’t.

“Unidentified contact. Bearing zero five mark three five. Oblique course. Fusion emissions. Battle computer designates Atlantis Seven One.”

The captain looked back over his shoulder from the conn. The tactical officer met his gaze.

“Hostile.”

Flynn rolled his eyes and whispered a curse. As formidable as his weaponry was, Constellation was only one ship. If the enemy vessel was escorted or part of a picket squadron, engaging it could lead to problems. At range, a Tombaugh missile destroyer was very tough to handle, as she was easily capable of overwhelming individual ship point defense with all kinds of complicated targeting problems. As that range closed, however, the strategic options became exponentially less inviting. Constellation’s energy weapons were minimal at best. She was designed to operate in a battle group with a vessel like DSS Ajax or DSS Jefferson to provide screening, remote targeting and close-range firepower. On her own, if she ended up in a running firefight, the absolute top priority was to maintain range so she could use the widest possible variety of weapons at optimum effectiveness.

“Range.”

“Three point seven million miles.”

That made things a little better. Even the fastest warship would need time to close range from almost four clicks out. During that time, it would be required to maintain a drive field, push power to battle screens and reserve enough to operate maximum envelope electronic warfare systems and point defense. For most non-capital ships that was a lot to ask. Inevitably, one or more of those priorities would have to be sacrificed in favor of the other three. It was Flynn’s job to figure out which one and pick the weapons from his arsenal that took maximum advantage.

“Any sign of Revenge or Exeter?”

A pause. “Negative.”

Flynn swore again. Engaging a single enemy warship was a risk. Banking on it being unescorted was a potentially disastrous risk. If a second ship popped up somewhere, it could cause all kinds of hard-to-navigate problems for a single destroyer. Captain Flynn wasn’t completely without options, however.

“Tactical, spin me up another LECWAR drone. Configure it to broadcast false emissions for a frigate class warship. Launch to a position point one click off the starboard perimeter. Activate on station.”

“Affirmative. Jets request in 30 seconds.”

The captain waited and watched his enemy. Atlantis 71 appeared to be navigating some kind of survey course, as if looking for either a disabled ship or following some kind of emissions pattern only it could see. The vessel was still on an oblique course and opening range on Constellation’s position, which only made things better for Flynn’s strategy. The further away the enemy contact maneuvered, the more options the captain had.

“Probe away.”

“Now we see if our opposite number takes the bait,” Flynn muttered. “Look sharp, pilot. We may need to run like hell in a few seconds.”

“Standing by, sir.” Constellation’s pilot was harnessed to his shock couch and had his controls set to react quickly to any potential emergency. The destroyer’s engines were set for standby, but had maximum power reserves available. One of the unsung advantages of missile technology was the fact few of the Tombaugh-class weapons required reactor energy. Destroyers could operate with a full flight envelope while firing their most powerful weapons. That gave them two of the three sides of the warship iron triangle. The part they were missing was defense. This was the reason ships like Flynn’s needed range. Their only viable defense was to run if they had to.

The “frigate” winked to life on the bridge tactical display. Flynn’s first watch crew waited as it wandered along right at the edge of the unidentified ship’s estimated tactical envelope. It wouldn’t be long before they detected it. Then it would be a question of how good Flynn’s tactical officer really was. The more convincing the drone looked, the more likely it would pull Atlantis 71 out of position and give Constellation her shot.

The tactical officer pulsed the dead man switches on both Hemlocks again. Their clocks reset. The deadly missiles floated in space, waiting for their orders.

“Emissions delta now four percent over amplitude. Possible aspect change in target position.”

“Look sharp, ensign.”

Everyone waited. The frigate continued to drift. It was now more than a million miles from its launch point and was about to break two million miles range to the hostile contact. Flynn felt a pang of regret and frustration. Normally Lieutenant Cooper would be running the show for a maneuver like this. He knew it would be so much easier if she were here. Talent and experience made all the difference in a life or death situation where seconds were the difference.

“Hostile target Atlantis 71 altering course. On intercept track for LECWAR contact beta.”

“Hooked them. Now we land them. Weps, give me three flights of RAM 600 warheads. Set Alpha to track on emissions. Beta to track on signature and Gamma to track on acquisition. You are cleared to arm.”

“Aye, captain. Transferring combat control to autolaunch racks. Weapons at your command.”

“Helm, give me a broad pass. Two zero five mark three ten, all ahead flank three.”

“Affirmative. Helm answering two zero five–”

The sound of the destroyer’s engines coming fully to life filled the bridge. The deck rolled to port as Flynn’s ship went to maximum safe acceleration.

“Weapons fire! Weapons fire!”

The tactical avatar for Atlantis 71 shifted from yellow to red. The proximity alarms went off at both the navigational and tactical stations.

“Signals, sound battle stations missile. Tactical bring us up nice and quiet. Passives only until further instructed.”

The destroyer’s bridge lights shifted red. The alert klaxon sounded, galvanizing the vessel’s decks and crews to maximum readiness. Constellation’s rotary mounts deployed above and below the wing launchers amidships. The ventral racks spun rapidly until they were fully loaded with sleek white-tipped rockets.

The LECWAR drone went into evasive spirals, trying to avoid the angry beams of explosive plasma energy spearing space around it. The hostile contact bore in, employing a fairly reckless approach. Constellation’s tactical officer did his best to make the tiny drone behave like a Skywatch frigate-class warship, despite the fact it was a tiny fraction of such a vessel’s mass. It was important to maintain the illusion as long as possible. If Atlantis 71 was focused on the drone, it wouldn’t be as well prepared for what Constellation was about to unleash.

“Arm Hemlock one.”

“Affirmative.”

Encrypted commands flashed through the defensive perimeter. The enormous anti-matter missile came to life and pivoted in space, preparing itself to carry out its lethal mission.

“Range to target now 2.8 million miles and increasing. Optimum firing envelope T plus two. The board is green.”

“Alpha wave armed.”

Flynn hesitated. Once he gave the order, Atlantis 71 would have to be destroyed or his ship would be lost. This was a fight to the death. “Fire all weapons.”

Constellation’s ventral racks went into full speed deployment. Every 0.8 seconds, another sprint missile screamed into space from each of six launchers. Within moments, more than 75 warheads were hurtling out of the destroyer’s defensive perimeter at more than 18,000 miles per second closure.

“Start the clock, tactical. Give me the count by tens.”

Captain Flynn watched the track carefully. Missile combat was all about timing. The goal was to overwhelm the enemy’s defenses while making them shoot at the least dangerous incoming birds. In this engagement, the most dangerous were the two Hemlock monsters waiting patiently for their orders. Anti-matter impacts were rarely survived, regardless of the class of the target vessel.

“Take the LECWAR dark.”

A moment later, the “frigate” Atlantis 71 was so doggedly pursuing vanished into the darkness like a candle flame going out. There was a brief moment of hesitation on the part of the enemy vessel Captain Flynn was quite accustomed to. It took most ship captains about ten seconds to realize what was happening, which was why Flynn had timed his first attack wave to hit his enemy’s active electronics perimeter at exactly that moment.

“Twenty seconds to impact.”

“Fire Hemlock One. Arm Hemlock Two.”

“Beta wave armed.”

“Fire all weapons.”

Another wave of 75 RAM 600 missiles blasted free of their mounts 18 at a time and streaked into the distance, trailing blue energy blooms.

The enemy warship’s point defense came to life like a nest of virulently poisonous snakes. Kinetics exploded to its starboard side, filling two hundred cubic miles of space with fast moving debris. The guidance systems aboard each of Constellation’s alpha wave RAM 600s did their best to avoid the spinning metal flechettes, but without drive fields or onboard defenses, their speed was both their weakness and their strength. They could close range quickly, but they could not avoid obstacles very well. Impacting something the size of a nickel coin at such speeds often created energy releases equivalent to a half-kiloton explosion. Spherical energy blasts rippled through the oncoming wedge of missiles. The discharges caused Constellation’s tactical display to freeze and then stagger as the Flynn’s passives tried to fight their way through the interference to get some idea of what was happening.

While Atlantis 71 was busy with the first formation of RAM 600s, it wasn’t watching its high port approach. Had someone been paying attention, they would have seen the dark distant form of the fourth Horseman charging over the electronic horizon at a full run. Hemlock One broke 200,000 miles and accelerated, bearing down on its hapless target like a cheetah sprinting towards an unaware gazelle. The enemy vessel’s point defense reacted with sudden violence, but with the wrong weapons and way too late. Kinetics screamed into the approach track of the gigantic warhead, but made no provision for the fact the Hemlock SRAT 108 wasn’t a sprint missile, and operated with a full drive field. The missile’s navigational screens vaporized Atlantis 71’s projectiles with contemptuous ease. It broke 180 miles just before its proximity fuse activated. A blinding white-hot explosion lit up space for six million miles in all directions.

“Impact. Hemlock One.”

Twelve seconds later, the bridge deck heaved as the electromagnetic shockwave from the warhead explosion slammed into Constellation’s starboard screens.

“Stand by, weps. Tactical, get me a damage assessment from our Type III. Helm, easy turn starboard X plus ten. Slow to two-thirds.”

“Aye, sir. Coming about.”

“Maintain oblique course, helm. Report on re-acquisition of Atlantis 71. Stand by Hemlock Two.”

The advantage to the big anti-matter bombs was their effectiveness. Even against full battle screens, a proximate gigaton-magnitude explosion was devastating both in terms of damage and its effect on electronic warfare systems. Like the electromagnetic pulse effects of old-style fission warheads, the disruption effect of an anti-matter explosion was considerable. Skywatch ships were equipped to compensate, to a point, but it remained to be seen if their enemies were.

What Flynn was counting on was his notoriously good timing. He knew exactly how long it normally took to re-acquire a target after a proximity explosion, and the clock was ticking on his beta wave of track-on-signature birds, which were at that moment rocketing into their terminal approach.

“Contact! Atlantis 71 bearing nine seven mark negative five. On evasive course! They are powering their primary weapons!”

Right on time. The moment Constellation was able to broadcast its enemy’s position to the offset relay, beta wave was ten seconds out.

“Auxiliary overload power to starboard battle screens! All ahead flank three!”

“Weapons fire!”

The destroyer surged forward moments before enemy fire control obtained a partial waveform lock. Long range plasma lance weapons erupted angrily against the destroyer’s starboard leading edge. Energy discharge tore and flashed through space. Then Constellation was away.

“Damage report!”

“Battle screens holding! Drive field stabilizing!”

The tactical officer spoke up. “Enemy vessel emissions indicate a destroyer-class warship in the 300,000-ton range.”

“Acknowledged. Engage evasive pattern. Wing-heavy. Stand by gamma wave.”

By now Atlantis 71 was back on its feet and ready to throw hard punches. Unfortunately, the moment its targeting horizon cleared, all it revealed was another angry swarm of highly destructive beta wave warheads seconds from impact. Once again, the vessel’s kinetic point defenses exploded to life, but by now their ammunition reserves were low. Only half were effective. Sixteen of Flynn’s birds reached their target. Lightning-like discharges strobed around the vessel’s strained battle screens as warhead after warhead slammed into its port-side drive field. The ship staggered in space, but somehow righted its course before veering towards the last known position of the Constellation.

“Damage assessment. Quickly.”

“Enemy screens down to no more than 28%, captain.”

“Maintain course and speed, pilot. Signals, open a hailing frequency. Engage automatic translation protocols.”

“Aye, captain. You’re on.”

“Attention unidentified vessel. This is Captain Raymond Flynn aboard the Skywatch Destroyer Constellation. We have you under our weapons. You are ordered to withdraw from Gitairn space or we will re-engage.”

The bridge crew waited patiently. If there were any kind of intelligent response, the auto-translator would pick it up and make some effort to synthesize a voice to represent it.

“Anything?” Flynn asked, looking back towards his signals officer.

“Negative. No response.”

“Go active. Get me a hard waveform lock on hostile target Atlantis 71.”

The rest of Flynn’s officers recognized the tactic. When employed by a missile destroyer, it was basically the equivalent of a room full of people pointing guns at the target. If Atlantis 71 was as bad off as Flynn suspected, the provocation just might be enough to get them to acknowledge the hail.

The missile lock tone jangled. The sound was rather unsettling, even for the ship aiming the weapons. A click away, Hemlock Two waited patiently, its own targeting systems updating Atlantis 71’s position moment by moment.

A new tone sounded at the signals station.

“Captain, we are being hailed.”

Flynn turned to look, eyebrow raised. His signals officer may as well have announced the crew had just been invited to a square dance. “On screen, ensign.”

A triangular image appeared on the Constellation’s bridge screen. It consisted of three disc-shaped icons surrounding some kind of heraldic device Flynn had to admit was unfamiliar to him. The image was quickly replaced an interior view of a spacecraft control compartment of some kind. In the background, an intense deep red light filled the lower half of the chamber. The creature occupying the middle of the viewscreen could only be described as an odd cross between a mantis-like insect and a fragile-looking avian species. Its numerous eyes were a pale gold color. It operated the controls with two agile-looking combination pincer-and-claw limbs. The pleasant voice of the Constellation’s auto-translation mechanism added understandable words over the sound of the creature’s cricket-like combinations of chirps and buzzes.

“I am Third Seeker Gohn of the Yersian Moon Faction. I propose a truce.”

“Lieutenant Commander Raymond Flynn. Skywatch Destroyer Constellation. Third Seeker, you launched an unprovoked attack on one of our ships.”

“A trick, commanderrrrr. Gohn finds subterfuge distasteful.”

“Indeed. Then perhaps you’ll explain why your ship is in Gitairn space at the scene of an apparent battle where two of my ships are missing.”

“I have no informationnnn on your missing ships, commanderrr.”

“Then you didn’t take a shot at them the way you just took a shot at us?”

“You have me at a disadvantage, commanderrrr.”

No kidding, Flynn thought. He gestured to his signals officer to cut the channel.

“Opinion, pilot.”

“He’s trying to buy time. Might have gotten a message off to another ship nearby.”

“Exactly what I was thinking, lieutenant,” Flynn replied. “Re-open channel.”

The audio pickup re-activated.

“What are your intentions, Third Seeker? I have orders to engage hostile vessels in Gitairn space. But we will agree to a temporary cease-fire if you power-down your weapons and retreat from this system.”

“The Yersian Faction agrees, commander. We will leave you to your space.”

“Perhaps in the future we can meet under less stressful terms, Third Seeker.”

The alien commander closed the channel without replying.

“Yersian Faction?” Flynn’s tactical officer asked.

“Find out what that is, ensign. Tactical and SRS, I want to know everything you can tell me about that alien ship and I want it before they are out of range. Signals, notify all decks to stand down battle stations and hold at alert condition two. Pilot, set course for the Bayone orbital track. For now keep us at least point two clicks out of the planet’s path, but keep me in close SRS range. I want to know what happened to Pat’s ship and our amphibious forces.”

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