"No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy." - Admiral Horatio Nelson
9 Firstmonth 322 JR
Beta Belt, New Israel System
DE39 JRS Oliver Winchester
The tactical officer, Junior Lieutenant Tess Vanacek, broke the silence of the bridge. "There he is."
The captain, Lieutenant Commander Arthur Dietrich, focused on the main screen. The Imperial cruiser was plainly visible; the ship's computer amplified and processed what little light had made the minutes-long trip from Epsilon Indi, bounced off the gas giant Abraham's Eye, bounced again off the cruiser's hull, and found its way into Winchester's sensors. "London class," he noted. The computer studied its own images, compared them to files, and made a positive identification: C20, ITS Culloden. "Just like the Haganah said."
How fitting, thought Dietrich, for the Empire to name a warship after one of the bloodiest and most tragic examples of tyranny in human history.
Of course, we've got one named Tiananmen, but our reasons are different.
"He outguns us three to one," noted the First Officer, Senior Lieutenant Norma Hanson. "But we've the edge in agility and boost."
Winchester had been lurking here for over two hundred hours, wrapping the second of Epsilon Indi's three asteroid belts around itself like a cloak, drifting under complete blackout. The destroyer's hull was painted matte black; ports and windows were covered with opaque panels so that not a single photon could escape. The ship had been examined thoroughly before departing for this mission, to ensure that its emissions, visible, infra-red, ultraviolet, and electro-magnetic, were at an absolute minimum.
That would be important.
"Gunners need targets," said the Captain. "With luck, we won't give them any."
That was cold comfort for Admiral Bramowitz. His wife had been commanding Masada. Half of Winchester's crew had friends on Masada, too. Everyone was looking forward to a little good-old-fashioned revenge.
Just hours after the first engagement with the Terran Empire, it was revealed that the attack on Monticello had been a diversion; a task force ten times as powerful had attacked the third-oldest world in the Republic, New Israel - and that was a mistake. That planet, a loophole for life orbiting a brown dwarf, had first been settled by Jewish separatists. The world's motto was "Never Again." Barely two months after their landing, the Imperial invaders found their ranks evaporating under the zeal of New Israeli resistance. Every road, every trail, every building concealed a bomb; every tree, every window, every boulder concealed a sniper, from a world of riflemen, from an interstellar nation of riflemen.
For three years the Empire had moved in a constant stream of reinforcements, pumping logistical blood into the hemorrhage they continued to loudly proclaim as a victory. Presently, a regiment of Imperial Guards - the 19th, the Unifiers, known in the Republic as the Butchers of Bern, and marked for blood vengeance by Jeffersonians of Swiss ancestry - was aboard ITS Culloden. Winchester's mission was to keep them away from New Israel. No one particularly cared how.
Dietrich's plan was... audacious.
"Signal received," reported Vanacek. "Phase One complete."
The Captain pressed a switch to activate a communications laser, and spoke quietly. "Major Lermontova, you may proceed with Phase Two."
"Watch that debris!"
"Stay clear of the decompression. Check your grapples! Check suit indicators."
"I got a leak. Backups OK, self-sealed, I'm green."
"Awright yew grunts, get in there! FOLLOW ME!"
"Fire from sector two! Grenades, Blackie!"
"On the way."
"That's got 'em, good shooting Bla-" thump
"Ell tee? Ell tee! They got the lieutenant!"
"I see it Strauder. Cuckoo Six, this is Cuckoo Two Five. Cuckoo Two Six is gone, I am taking command."
"Acknowledged Cuckoo Two, carry on."
"Pressure door! Take hold!"
"Everyone secure? Blow it!"
"Sarge my grapple's slipping the wind Saaarge-"
"Strauder! Fire a line at Haskell."
"I got him, Sarge."
"Thanks Strauder! I owe you-"
"Cut the chatter! The compartment's about unh-"
"I'm okay, a body slammed into me, I'm secure. Compartment's empty, take it! Watch for-" thththththwacckkk
"Sarge! They got Sarge!"
"Sarge!" thump thump "I got the bastards Sarge! ugk-" wham
"This is Taylor, I'm green, I've lost my servos, switching to backup. Corporal Strauder?"
"Strauder caught one in the helmet Sarge, she's had it. Oh shit, Betty-"
"Gods dammit now I'm mad!"
Captain Oksana Lermontova, Jeffersonian Republic Marine Corps, addressed as major by the ship's crew during this operation, led a reinforced platoon of Jeffersonian Mobile Infantry, crammed aboard Winchester especially for this mission. Lermontova and the troops with her now had invented the operation they were now undertaking. Unfortunately this was the first time they'd tested it in combat. "Very well," said Dietrich. "Phase Three. Helm, bring us alongside. Tactical, prepare to fire on their weapons and engines, at your discretion. Just like we planned it, folks."
Winchester hummed with power as the realspace engines erupted into life, shoving the 8,000-ton destroyer toward the enemy cruiser. Acceleration pulled the crew down into their couches - three gravities, four, five, and lateral forces slamming them in every direction against their harnesses as the destroyer maneuvered. The helmsman, Spacer Second Class Theodore Blakely, allowed a smile to creep across his face as the sleek warship twisted between the flying mountains of Beta Belt. He was riding a flying mountain, a mountain of metal, the greatest hot-rod ever built.
Dietrich looked at Blakely and thought, There's a career man. He'll still be driving ships and scaring the hell out of his COs thirty years from now.
I hope I'm there to see it.
Admiral Bramowitz himself had a reputation as the best marksman in the Navy, but Vanacek had been his star pupil at the Ian Hogg Institute. She started shooting from a hundred kilometers away, first sending a stream of mass-driver slugs into the enemy cruiser's drive section. Blinding light flared as some of the magnetohydrodynamic generators, through which the engines fired to charge energy weapons, overloaded. Glowing, flowing shards of Culloden's hull spun away from the terrible wound.
Too close for the faster-than-light E-cannon, whose properties would have dreadful effects on Lermontova's people in any case, lasers and mass drivers stabbed at the enemy's weapon mounts. Without the elements of stealth, surprise, and internal attack, the Republic destroyer would have been hopelessly outmatched. Even so, Culloden's crew began to return fire. It was an uncoordinated effort, but the sheer volume of fire from the much larger Imperial ship soon began to tell.
Imperial weapons slammed into Winchester's hull. Over the din, Vanacek shouted into her suit mike, "We're losing! I can't keep up!"
A lucky shot from an Imperial railgun burrowed deep into the ship. The bridge compartment buckled under the stress and began to decompress. Flame swept through the bridge, stoked like a blast furnace by the escaping atmosphere. Hanson was caught in the current. Her armored e-suit charred by the flash fire, the deck torn beneath her, she was swept toward the hull breach, still strapped into her twisted acceleration couch. Slamming to a stop against the bulkhead she released her harness and began struggling with a patch kit.
Spacer Blakely was not so lucky. Shrapnel sliced through his harness and he flew out of his couch, slamming into the jagged edge of the breach. Impaled on a twisted piece of deck, he died instantly, but blocked Hanson's efforts. As pressure dropped and the wind decreased, she ruthlessly hauled his body free and shoved it away, then stuffed the slab of superplastic into the breach, injecting it with catalyst; it expanded into the breach, softening and flowing like magic where it sensed lower pressure. The wind stopped, pressure began to rise, and the fire-suppression system attacked the hellishly unpredictable weightless fire.
Meanwhile, Dietrich leapt from his command couch and struggled into Blakely's, taking over the helm and keeping Winchester on-station. Vanacek called out again. "Signal from Culloden!"
"On speaker," Dietrich replied.
"Lermontova to Winchester. Culloden has been secured. Code niner foxtrot delta four. Cease fire, cease fire, cease fire."
As Deitrich set the ship to keep station with Culloden, Vanacek began to deactivate her weapons. It didn't take her long; there weren't many left. Dietrich checked his suit monitors, then opened his visor. His suit deflated with a puff - though breathable, the atmosphere in the bridge was still thinner than that in his suit, yet somehow thicker with the stink of fire and death. He closed his eyes and ran a hand over his face, slowly.
"One down," said Dietrich as swirling, jiggling balls of blood floated across the bridge, and smoke stung his eyes as the ventilation system pulled it away. He told himself the enemy data captured with the ship would save many more Jeffersonian lives than had been lost in the operation. Pending analysis of that data, from here on he could simply sneak up on enemy ships and torpedo them, without sending brave Marines to their deaths.
"One down, eighty-three to go."