The Tale Begins Here With CHAPTER – 1
The Battle Begins
“Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war,” Chaplain Prata recited the Imperial battle prayer which began with the opening verses of the 143rd Psalm, prayed by Christian soldiers down the ages. His raspy tenor came through my helmet’s comm link crisp and clear. “My refuge and my fortress, my stronghold, my deliverer, my shield, in whom I trust, who subdues peoples under me.”
Our briefing ended nearly two hours ago. The mission clock counted down to zero soon after. The invasion was a go!
I was aboard the Santo Torquemada, down on my right knee with the rest of 5th Battalion’s C Company. We were suited up and lined up by squads, twelve abreast, sixteen deep. Our plasteel plate armor was gray with red fluting, our breastplates stamped with the Imperial Marines’ emblem of gold, sword-shaped cross and red omega. Our hauberks were black.
A squad of the Knights of Saint James Matamoros knelt in the row ahead of us. They were in their bulky power armor, white with red highlights. Their breastplates were stamped with their order’s namesake cross.
Behind us knelt a squad of Hospitallers, minus Chaplain Prata who was up front, leading us in prayer. These warrior-priests also wore plate and chain, all black but for the simple, white cross that emblazoned their breast plates.
Behind the Hospitallers were two squads of squires, in red and white checkered plasteel plate. The crysteel hauberks they wore beneath the plate were red.
A dozen hulking, five-meter tall, silver and gold mechanized knights stood in trios behind our columns. Their breastplates were also emblazoned with the red Saint James Cross. The knights who operated the mechs were on the deck in pressurized gambesons and helmets, kneeling beneath their “walking tanks.”
A formidable fighting force as could be found anywhere in the galaxy, our voices rose as one as we all joined Chaplain Prata in praying verses derived from ancient Byzantine and Russian liturgies, “O Lord, judge those who offend Thee. Smite those who set themselves against Thee. Come to our aid with arms and shields.”
Knights, squires and marines then fell silent as Chaplain Prata and his fellow Hospitallers continued, “Make Thy faithful soldiers glad in Thy strength, O Lord. May Thy cross, invincible weapon of peace, assist us in battle and grant us victory over the enemies of our True Faith and our glorious Empire.”
One man in each marine squad had an aether generator strapped to his back which powered a formidable Mark IV Plasma Rifle. Izzy was our squad’s Burner. The rest of us wielded all-purpose HAW 3Ks. The bulky Heavy Assault Weapons weren’t pretty to look at, but their power and versatility had won them standard issue status in the corps.
The 3K designation was derived from its three thousand bead drum, but the weapon also housed a twelve-grenade cartridge and it had a variable pulse fire capacity which could do anything from stunning opponents to burning fist-sized holes through them. Pulse pistols were holstered at our hips.
The Hospitallers and Knights of Saint James carried power swords instead of pistols for sidearms.
The towering mechanized knights were armed with oversized HAW 12Ks which had a maximum effective range of 1,200 meters compared to the 500 meter range of the man-sized HAWs. The mechs carried power swords with blades as tall as men at their sides. These battle hulks could also fire twenty-four megawatt lasers from apertures molded into their armor behind and above their wrists. Additionally, each mech sported a six rocket rack across their backs.
The entire assembly joined for the closing lines of the antiphonal war prayer, “Grant victory to Your people for Your glory, O Lord, for You are our strength and protection and we sing praises to Your glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.”
Padre Prata concluded by blessing us. We crossed ourselves and rose to our feet. The Chaplin made his way quickly to his spot in the ranks. Behind us, the mechs’ breastplates split open. The knights who drove them quickly scrambled up their machines and into their cockpits. A squad of squires followed them up and helped the knights strap into their neuroservo harnesses.
Captain Dayo Obey stepped forward out of the column of knights and turned to face us. His velvet bass filled our helmets. “Alright my brothers in Christ, once Gamma group engages with the enemy fleet, we will proceed to the surface. God be with us.”
“Amen,” we responded.
We passed a few minutes in silent and private prayer.
My mind however, was anything but quiet.
Battles were already underway on and around the moons of Muvuru 5 and 6. The last report from battle groups Alpha and Beta announced that both moon bases were already under siege. It was hoped that both bases would soon be breached and subdued.
The battle for Muvuru 3 was only just beginning.
After ten minutes, our helmets’ face plates lit up with views of the battle space ahead of us. The short view showed us the Paladin Lepanto on point, plunging toward the heart of the enemy like a five thousand meter-long, cross-guarded sword. The frigates Montgisard and Roncevalles were similarly shaped but only a third the size of the Paladin. They followed and flanked the Lepanto’s port and starboard.
The Princedom of Austros’ destroyers, Emperor Karl and King Sobieski, shaped like flying Vs, flanked the Paladin top and bottom. The Halberds and Hussars followed in a square formation, the latter shaped like winged pyramids and the former like heater shields.
The feed was coming from the CIC of the Imperial Frigate, King Alfred, flying at the rear of the fleet, A hundred thousand kilometers behind the Paladin and her escorts. The King Alfred was surrounded by a dozen Lance Interceptors, twice as many Spontoon Gunships as well as the Santo Torquemada and the rest of the ships which comprised Assault Group Delta.
The chatter between our various ships bridge crews was a barely audible background susurrus in our helms.
One voice suddenly rose above them all, “Launch probes.” It was Lepanto’s Commodore, Josias Alba.
“Seekers one, two and three away,” the response came from one of his junior officers.
The probes were mere dots of light streaking towards Muvuru-3 in a wide arc that would take them to the planet’s far side. They would alert us to anything that might be hiding there.
The ‘long’ view was a tactical display of the enemy flotilla. Our ship scans confirmed what our previous probes had only glimpsed. The pirate fleet consisted of six hundred and thirty- one ships bought, salvaged and scavenged from scores of planets.
The flotilla was a motley collection of second hand cruisers, frigates, destroyers and corvettes as well as caravels, freighters and tankers retrofitted for battle. On our helm screens they appeared no bigger than the stars in the night sky, slow-swirling into a defensive posture. The enemy fleet was assuming a cone formation, hoping to swallow our ships and bombard our fewer vessels from every side with everything they had.
The rogues’ hope was a fool’s hope. Imperial Paladins were among the most heavily armed, armored and powerfully shielded ships to ever plow the plenum of deep space. While not as heavily armed, the frigates and destroyers were equally armored and shielded. Unperturbed by the pirates’ strategy, the Lepanto and escorts continued forward, course unchanged.
At just under one hundred million kilometers, the enemy fired a volley of torpedoes.
A voice from the Paladin’s CIC announced, “Combat computer counts three hundred and fifty-seven kinetic missiles inbound. Eighty-five million kilometers out and closing at seventy-seven percent of C.”
Commodore Alba’s voice responded. “Fleet, slow to three-quarter C.”
“Slowing to three-quarter C.”
“Initiate firing solution alpha.”
“Initiating firing solution alpha.”
The order was echoed across our fleet and the Paladin and frigates began slow, clockwise rolls as they continued forward. The Austros destroyers and Imperial frigates closed to within two thousand meters of the Lepanto. The Halberds and Hussars advanced forward.
Light from the system’s distant star, Muvuru glinted off the gold and pearl white hulls of the Emperor’s ships and the gold and black hulls of the Austros Princedom destroyers. It was a glorious sight, particularly when they suddenly returned fire.
The Paladin loosed one hundred torpedoes. They sprung like loose casings from apertures ringing the center of the Lepanto’s octagonal hull. Each frigate fired off thirty in similar fashion. The destroyers contributed fifty torpedoes each to the salvo, spitting them in pairs out of each plane of their tetrahedron hulls.
The pirates answered immediately with a second salvo.
“Second wave of kinetic torpedoes incoming, commodore. Computer counts three hundred and eighty-one at seventy-eight million kilometers and closing at point eighty-eight C. First wave has closed to twenty-five million kilometers.”
Commodore Alba gently ordered. “Ready all batteries.”
Blast doors along their hulls split open and gun batteries slid outward from the ships’ interiors. Each battery consisted of three individually gimbaled turrets, a Nova plasma cannon, a 120 megawatt Hellfire laser and a Pulsar proton particle beam. The Lepanto bristled with eighty batteries, twenty spread across four lengths of her octagonal hull. Each frigate produced eight batteries along each of three lengths of their hexagonal hulls. The destroyers had ten such batteries, five dorsal and five ventral. Each Halberd and Hussar sprouted a trio of batteries, two ventral and one dorsal.
“Set point defense perimeter at 3 million kilometers.”
The order was repeated and the combat computer aboard the Lepanto coordinated with its counterparts across our small fleet to choreograph the firing of every laser and particle beam at the yet unseen incoming missiles. Almost immediately, the enemy’s torpedoes began exploding in the distance. In less than thirty seconds, the pirates’ first wave of torpedoes were all destroyed, the last handful while still a half a million kilometers out.
The pirates fired two more volleys of torpedoes.
They sure enjoy wasting ordnance, I thought, listening to the Lepanto’s tactical officer announce the launch of the new salvos.
Commodore Alba then ordered, “Gamma Force, slow to one-half C.”
“Slowing to one-half C.”
“Delta Force proceed to your objective,” Commodore Alba continued. “God go with you.”
The King Alfred’s Captain Devereaux responded, “Roger that, Lepanto and Godspeed to you.
“Attention all ships of Force Delta, we are changing course to one-one-five point two-nine on my mark.”
The command was echoed throughout the ships of Delta Group.
The King Alfred and company began nosing towards the planet.
A flash of static signaled the switch of feeds from the King Alfred to the Lepanto.
After a beat we heard Commodore Alba order, “Initiate firing solution Beta.”
Our fleet loosed another three hundred kinetics at the enemy.
“Second wave of enemy missiles at five point seven million kilometers and closing. Point defense engaging.”
Just then our first salvo of torpedoes reached the enemy. For several seconds, we watched the pirate flotilla defend itself with a spray of their own point defense fire. The details were then suddenly lost as our own point defense systems began taking out the enemy’s second wave of missiles. In a little more than a minute, the bright flashing ceased. An expanding cloud of faintly glowing scrap metal was all that was left of the hundreds of missiles in the pirates’ second wave.
Beyond the debris field, our enemy had not fared as well against Imperial torpedoes. Our battle computers noted that six of their ships had been destroyed and thirteen others damaged, one bad enough to be seen drifting away from the cone formation.
“Commodore, the enemy has just loosed a fifth salvo,” the tactical officer announced. “It’s mostly kinetics. Two hundred and fifty two of them plus a hundred and five plasma warheads. They’re fifty-seven million kilometers out and closing at point eighty-eight C. Third and fourth wave approaching five million kilometers. Point defense engaging.”
“Initiate firing solution Gamma…”
The Imperial point defense fire continued to handily destroy all incoming fire. Our second wave of missiles destroyed another twenty-eight ships and crippled half that many more.
The Lepanto’s tactical officer droned on over our comms, “Commodore, computer analysis of the exchange of fire thus far suggests the pirates don’t have a central computer coordinating either their attacks or defenses.”
“Noted. Ready the rail guns.”
“Rail Guns on line and at the ready, Commodore.” The response came back, first from his own tactical officer, and then from the tactical officers aboard the escort ships.
“Initiate firing solution Delta.”
Another volley of Imperial torpedoes were loosed on the enemy. The Paladin, frigates and destroyers accompanied the salvo with a slow, steady and continuous pulse of rail gun fire between them. The Lepanto had four such guns that ran a third the length of four sides of her octagonal hull. The frigates had three rail guns each. The Austros destroyers had one apiece. From the prow of each ship, oil-barrel-sized shells of depleted uranium streaked across the distance between fleets at near light speed.
The rail gun shells punched holes through the enemy’s cone formation even as our second and then our third wave of missiles fell upon them with a vengeance. The pirate’s firewall became more porous with every ship they lost to our salvos.
Once the fleets closed within twenty-five million kilometers, the exchange of fire became nearly continuous. As the distance shrank further, handfuls of enemy missiles began to slip through our ship’s defensive fire and explode against our force shields. The kinetics struck with small effect, but the plasma warheads began to drain our force shields.
The pirates firewall proved even more penetrable. Our torpedoes and rail gun shells fell upon them to catastrophic effect. A third of their fleet was either destroyed or inoperable, blown into molten shrapnel or adrift without power and venting atmosphere.
“The fleets are at twelve million kilometers and closing. Enemy formation is breaking up.”
“Firing solution Epsilon, initiate.”
Unable to withstand the withering fire of Imperial rail guns, the pirates wisely abandoned their plan to envelope the Lepanto and her escorts. Their only defense against the devastating fire of the rail guns was to get out of the weapons’ lines of sight. They quickly spread their flotilla out as thinly as possible.
In response, the Paladin and her escorts began pulling apart, splaying their trajectories to keep as many of the enemy’s ships in those lines of fire as long as possible.
Commodore Alba’s bass voice sounded in our helmets again, “Slow to one-tenth C.”
“Slowing to one-tenth C.”
“Angels, you are a go for launch,” Commodore Alba continued. “God be with you and your lads, Captain Benziger.”
“And God be with you, Commodore,” Captain Benziger replied. “Alright Angels, wings up and away!”
Angel Fighters launched out of the pommels of the Imperial Paladin and Frigates. They shot out of the Lepanto, six at a time and three at a time out of the frigates. Once out, they rolled through short arcs that orientated them towards the enemy fleet and then fired their engines. The Montgisard and Roncevalle loosed six wings of six fighters, a full Flight of Angels each. The Lepanto let fly three Flights.
The pirate ships continued firing off volley after volley of torpedoes, the majority of them plasma warheads. They spread themselves far enough apart to spare themselves the ravaging fusillades of rail guns but our continuous salvo of missiles whittled down their number at a rate they should have found alarming.
“New incoming missiles are nukes,” Lepanto’s tactical officer warned the fleet. “Repeat. Incoming missiles are nukes. One hundred and seventy-six nuclear warheads inbound!”
“We’ll clear as many as we can for you, Lepanto,” Captain Benziger said.
Our Angels managed to dispatch forty-three of the nukes with a torrent of laser fire before the fighters and missiles streaked past each other. Point defense fire took out another one hundred and twenty-two. The eleven nukes that slipped through flared brightly as they exploded in star-hot fireballs against our ships’ combined shields.
I winced and held my breath until the cloud of blinding white light dissipated and revealed that all our ships were still there. The data scroll informed me that the Halberds and Hussars were now shieldless as was the Emperor Karl. The others were drained to less than forty percent.
The exchange of missile and point defense fire became a kaleidoscopic light show. It was nearly impossible to follow the details even with the data points scrolling across the bottom of the images. A few facts were clear enough. There were no more nukes being lobbed our way. All incoming fire consisted of plasma warheads. And the pirates were in a fighting retreat.
Every wave of enemy fire contained fewer missiles as their number of ships was steadily decimated. This led to fewer and fewer strikes against our ships. Unfortunately, few as they were, the plasma strikes were taking a dangerous toll on the smaller ships. The Halberds and Hussars were forced to the rear.
As I tried to determine just how much more they might be able to take, the Romanov exploded.
My breath caught in my throat.
The battle raged on violently and without letup, but inside the hold of the Santo Torquemada, the silent seconds passed, oppressive with the weight of our loss until Chaplain Prata’s prayer filled our helmets. “God of all spirits, God of all flesh who have given life to all worlds and trampled death under your blessed feet, grant to the souls of your deceased servants rest in a place of light…”
Prata’s fellow Hospitallers joined in with, “A verdant place, from where suffering, pain and cries are far removed. In blessed repose, grant, O’ Lord, eternal rest to your departed servants.”
We joined the warrior/monks for the closing chant, “Eternal memory, eternal memory, blessed repose and eternal memory.”
I crossed myself and turned my attention back to the screen. I noted the pirates were down to less than a third of their original number and being routed.
Our Angels closed in on them as they fell back and continued to scatter. The pirate flotilla targeted the Imperial fighters with a combination of laser, plasma and torpedo fire. The 180 Angels returned fire with a torpedo each and then yawed into sharp arcs away from the enemy. The jets of plasma fired by the pirates dissipated harmlessly behind the Angels but not before two of our fighters were destroyed by concentrations of laser fire and torpedo strikes.
‘Eternal memory, eternal memory, blessed repose and eternal memory…’
The Angels had chosen to concentrate their missiles on twenty of the enemy’s biggest ships. The pirates’ point defense systems took out about a third of the Imperial torpedoes. The others managed to destroy thirteen of their targets.
Our Angels then banked twice into a pair of turns that pointed them back towards the pirates. The second approach was calculated to bring them into contact with the enemy just before the Paladin and company would have the flotilla within range of their batteries.
As our fleet approached that five million kilometers mark, the King Alfred’s tactical officer announced, “Captain, our Seeker probes are detecting multiple launchings of ships from the planet’s far side.”
“What kind of ships, Lieutenant?”
“It’s a mix of mostly one-man fighters, sir… Hegemony Hornets, League Darts and Union Stingers, but the probes are also identifying a handful of Federation Double Eagles as well as some ad hoc hybrids. They just keep launching. Two hundred and twelve and counting…”
“Looks like you’ve got yourselves a welcoming committee, Delta group,” Commodore Alba announced.
“And who ever said pirates were unmannered brutes,” Captain Devereaux responded. “Lieutenant, launch our fighters.”
“I’m sending our Angels to assist, King Alfred. Captain Benziger…”
“We’re on it, Commodore,” Benziger called back. “Let’s burn aether, boys!”
Like a school of silverfish altering course in unison, the Angels rolled off course, banked sharply and pitched planetward to intercept their counterparts.
“Much obliged Lepanto,” Devereaux said. “I didn’t think to bring anything to this soiree but a firing solution or three.”
“Give them hell, King Alfred,” Commodore Alba said even as his own ships breached the enemy swarm.
At five million kilometers, the fleets supplemented their exchange of torpedoes with laser and particle beam fire. At one million kilometers, plasma cannons were engaged on both sides. Our Paladin led the way, a spinning sword firing broadsides in every direction, punching holes through the thinning cloud of enemy ships. Her escorts busied themselves cleaning up what survived the Paladin’s fire. The horde of enemy ships began to disintegrate even faster. Some disappeared in splashes of bright flames and others began to turn tail and run.
“Three hundred and forty-one fighters and counting,” King Alfred’s tactical officer updated the fleet. “They’ve taken out Seeker 2. Switching feed to Seeker 1.”
“Delta Force,” Captain Devereaux spoke next. “Ready all batteries.”
A short burst of chatter filled our helms as orders were relayed and acknowledged.
“Seeker one destroyed… switching to… never mind… Seeker three is gone too…”
Captain Devereaux continued, “Lieutenant, cycle up our rail guns.”
“Slave all escort batteries to our combat computer for point defense.”
“Slaving all batteries…”
“Slow to point zero-one of C.”
“Slowing to point zero-one C…” the tactical officer echoed. “Enemy fighters should be coming over the horizon in 1.21 kiloseconds.”
“Preceded, undoubtedly, by a salvo of torpedoes,” Captain Devereaux said. “Let’s have a batch of our own waiting for them when they come round the bend.”
“Initiate firing solution Alpha.”
A new front had opened up in the battle for Muvuru 3 and our boots had not yet touched ground. If there is a more helpless feeling than waiting in the hold of a drop ship while battles rage all around you, I had yet to experience it. It was unsettling, and the feeling only deepened when the Saint Richard Lionheart suddenly exploded.