The Story Begins Here with Chapter – 1.
Boots On The Ground
“…Blessed repose and eternal memory.”
I kept an eye on the tactical display even as my fellow marines and I prayed for the souls lost on the Lionheart.
The Lepanto had lost a dozen of her batteries. Her shields were reduced to forty-four percent. The Emperor Karl was stripped of all her ventral batteries. The King Sobieski lost one on each side as well as suffering a hull breach at her prow. Both destroyers were running without force shields. The Montgisard lost a score of her guns and was fighting fires on three of her decks. The Roncevalle lost an engine and was forced to slow considerably as she listed heavily to starboard. The Raymond du Puy and the Habsburg were ordered to fall back in her defense. The Halberd and Hussar lost half their guns between them and their shields were depleted.
The pirates however were in full retreat even as they unloaded all their ordnance. Their remaining seventy-nine ships were fleeing towards the asteroid belt. The Lepanto and the destroyers were in pursuit.
The view of the Lepanto’s chase disappeared in a flash of static. It was replaced by the view of our approach to Muvuru-3.
Captain Devereaux spoke up once more. “Alright everyone, enemy missiles should be rounding the horizon in ten seconds.”
Enemy torpedoes climbed over the curvature of Muvuru-3 like a cloud of stars. Almost as soon as they appeared, the missiles began exploding as they flew into the torrent of our point defense fire.
Not a single one was able to punch through our fire wall.
Seconds later the enemy fighters appeared, loosening another barrage of torpedoes before our own missiles fell upon them. A dozen enemy ships were destroyed instantly. Twice that number were damaged enough to either fall from orbit or retreat planetward.
The King Alfred’s tactical officer announced, “Computer counts six hundred and eleven fighters remaining.”
“Firing solution Beta, initiate,” Captain Devereaux ordered, unleashing another swarm of Imperial torpedos. They were accompanied by a dozen jets of plasma and a trio of rail gun shells.
Our point defense eliminated the second wave of enemy missiles as handily as it disposed of the first. The pirates fired a third volley and lobbed it our way with a rain of laser bolts and jets of plasma.
Fourty-eight of their fighters were lost to our return fire and we began to take damage.
Everyone of our ships suffered a lashing from combinations of laser and plasma. Additionally, thirty-one missiles slipped through our defensive fire. They exploded mostly against the King Alfred and the carrier Czar Peter Magnus. Our own Santo Torquemada was rocked by a couple of torpedo strikes.
The next instant, the pirate fighters released a fourth batch of torpedoes as they streaked past our battle group. Three score enemy missiles found their targets, striking mostly our big ships, the frigate and the carrier. The Santo Torquemada was hit another three times. A Lance and two Spontoons were lost to the barrage. In turn, our batteries obliterated forty-four of the fighters as they passed.
The King Alfred and Czar Peter Magnus loosed another one hundred torpedoes between them. Their missiles took out another thirty enemy fighters as they banked into another attack run.
At last, our Angels joined the battle. Their volley of missiles arrived and nearly four dozen pirate ships exploded into shards.
Moments later, the Angels were trading fire with their rival fighters. The two swarms of ships flew through each other trading torpedoes, laser bolts and jets of plasma. I winced watching collisions take out several fighters on each side. Others were destroyed by intense concentrations of point-blank range fire.
The details were all but lost, blurred by the explosions of torpedoes, the bursts and blasts of plasma and laser bolts burning against shields and hulls. Our fleet’s combat computer’s running tally scrolling across the bottom of our faceplates assured us that the pirates were suffering the majority of the losses.
Once past each other, the swarms banked into turns, the Angels splitting into two groups. The Lepanto’s Angels were quick to turn back towards the enemy. The King Alfred’s fighters banked into a much wider arc, leaving them further away from the pirates. The longer route back would allow them the time to hit the enemy horde with fully recharged plasma cannons. With the rival fighter groups separated, the King Alfred turned her guns on the pirate horde, destroying another score of the enemy’s ships.
The Lepanto’s Angels chose to forego their cannons for a more immediate, second strike. They charged the enemy swarm in a tight, three fighter-wide, column formation. The column of Imperial fighters undulated in its approach, the rising and falling of each trio of Angels perfectly coordinated by their combat computers to allow each ship to fire their lasers in a continuous stream.
One pirate fighter after another was destroyed by such concentrated fire. All the while, fire from our frigate and carrier batteries continued to take out additional enemy fighters as the Angels charged the pirate swarm.
The Lepanto’s Angels tightened their formation as they approached. From straight, wingtip-to-wingtip lines, our fighters clustered into triangles, each trio of Angels flying close enough to overlap shields, amplifying their power. In an impressive display of precision flying, the combat computer would drop the lead triangle of Angels from point position after absorbing four or five torpedo strikes, slide them to the rear where they could recharge their shields and advance the next trio of fighters to fly point defense for the entire column.
We watched the column cycle through seven sets of trios, safely absorbing dozens of torpedo strikes, before it finally lanced the enemy swarm.
Only one Angel was lost to collision as most of the pirates, having grown suddenly skittish, gave them a wide berth. Once through the swarm, the Angels split into their remaining wing groups and did as much damage as they could from the outside. The pirates lost fifteen fighters in the exchange. We lost four, or rather, three and a half counting the pilot that was able to eject from his Angel before it plummeted to the planet like a falling star.
We sent prayers his way when we heard his mayday call.
The King Alfred dispatched a Spontoon to the rescue.
The pirate horde was quickly losing discipline. Their attacks on the King Alfred and her escorts ceased as all of their attention was concentrated on defending themselves against our Angels. They were beginning to disperse when another fusillade of missiles from the second wave of Angels fell upon them. Eleven were destroyed by the barrage. Another two-dozen burst into shrapnel when the King Alfred’s Angels hit them like a wall, plasma cannons firing at close range.
The pirate fighters lost all cohesion. They turned tail and retreated towards Muvuru-3, spreading out as they did. The Angels pursued them. The two swarms broke up into small clusters and pairs of fighters, wildly flitting about the upper atmosphere in scores of dog fights.
This was the sort of fighter combat that pitted pilot against pilot, forcing them to rely on their wits, reflexes and training rather than their computers. The Imperial fighters had the better hand here as well. They slowly but steadily whittled down the enemy’s numbers, driving them further and further from us.
“Lieutenant, let’s get more eyes to the far side of the planet,” Captain Devereaux ordered.
His tactical officer returned with, “Aye, Captain. Echoes one, two and three away.”
The probes flew from us to cross over Muvuru-3’s northern pole. We then slipped into orbit well out of range of the plateau’s surface-to-orbit defenses.
After a minute of watching the enemy swarm continue to crumble as their fighters fled in every direction, Captain Devereaux announced, “Alright Czar Peter, you are cleared to drop tanks. Ground assault is a go!”
The carrier Czar Peter Magnus was a thousand-meter-long cylinder with flattened top and bottom and flared ends. A pair of fins, which housed her engines, protruded from the center of the shaft, one on the starboard side, the other from the port. Two sets of doors along the carrier’s ventral hull split open and ten orbital boats, no more than cages mounted atop electromagnetic refractor platforms, dropped from the ship’s interior.
The El Cid, Magnus and the Charlemagne stayed in orbit with the Empress Catherine and Vladimir Putin assisting the Princedom’s carrier with point defence. The rest of us accompanied the one hundred and twenty Kuvasz-class tanks on their fifteen minute descent through the Muvuru-3’s thin atmosphere.
Once planetside, the tanks rolled out of their cages and Martel’s Marauders began the seventy-one kilometer advance on the pirate base. Their escort Halberds, Spontoons and Hussars advanced with them, hugging the surface, just a few meters above the two tank columns.
We traveled along a pre-arranged course chosen to keep us, as much as it was possible, out of the enemy’s lines of sight. The approach was less than perfect. There were three stretches of our course, each multi kilometers-long, which exposed us to enemy fire.
During those intervals we punched up power to our forward shields and took what evasive maneuvers we could, while the tanks beneath us sped along as fast as they were able.
The Halberds, Spontoons and Hussars could’ve streaked through those segments quickly and possibly avoided being hit, but we stayed with our slower moving tanks, providing what point defense fire we could against the rain of missiles and hypersonic slugs of molten-tungsten.
Far ahead of us, Lances drew what fire they could away from us.
As we approached our landing zone, the King Alfred pulled into synchronous orbit over the mesa and opened up with her ventral batteries. The Imperial frigate’s bombardment began a steady drain of the enemy’s formidable shields as well as played havoc with their targeting computers.
Despite the fighter and interceptor assist and the aid from orbit we still lost eight tanks and two Spontoons on our approach. Each Spontoon represented five men lost; the tanks, nine.
We also nearly lost one of the Hussars with more than two companies of Austros troopers aboard. Our own Halberd took three direct, ship-shaking and nerve-jarring hits but, God be praised, our shields held and we reached our landing zone with a few percentage points of power for our shields to regenerate from.
We touched down on a sunken field of frozen, brick-red mud, iridescent with metallic fluorides. The ramp dropped and, squad by squad, we double-timed it off the Santo Torquemada. The rest of 5th Battalion debarked the Santos Cortez, Colombo and Andrea Doria.
The mechs followed us out, their heavy footfalls causing the ground to tremble slightly. Behind the mechs, eight recon-rovers – treaded robots about the size of a child’s desk – rolled down the ramps, spread out before us and immediately started forward. Only the trio of small dish antennae on their tops were visible in the thick, thigh-high and pale-yellow fog which crawled in slow-curling swirls over the surface.
Long, stringy and gossamer clouds of the same gas marbled the dark, burnt umber sky. A mountain range of fluorite crystal loomed to our west, its jagged, frozen peaks of pale emerald glinting in the twilight. They towered over a xanthous landscape of mounds and dunes interspersed with mounds of basalt and tall outcroppings of obsidian and various fluorites.
Half a klick to our north, the battalion of Austros troopers debarked from their Hussars. The crew of the wounded Hussar came out as well to inspect the damage to her starboard wing. I focused on the scene and ordered my armor computer to ratchet up my visor’s magnification.
The wing did not look good.
The tanks idled between our two battalions.
“It’s swiss cheese down there but negative on wyrm activity in our immediate area,” 1st platoon’s Corporal Daniel Simmons relayed the findings of the rovers’ scans to the company.
“You hear that Shoji,” Sergeant Hayes announced over the comms. “It’s still safe for you to smile.”
We all had us a small laugh.
“Can you define immediate area, corporal,” Izzy asked.
“A half-kilometer deep in a three-kilometer radius,” Corporal Simmons answered. “But you would know that private Hooke, if you had bothered to open your own link to the rover feed.”
You could almost see Izzy blushing under his helmet. “Yes, of course. Sorry, sir. I’m opening my link now.”
“Don’t be too hard on him, Simmons,” Corporal Bucci said. “The private was undoubtedly busy rifling through the orbital pics, searching for a diner or maybe a Snarkee’s Snack Shack. Weren’t you, private?”
Laughter filled the comms, my own included. I couldn’t make out if Izzy had joined in, but I was sure Izzy was at least grinning sheepishly. I hammered his pauldron sympathetically while I quickly opened the very same link I had similarly forgotten about in my curiosity over the wounded Hussar.
I called up the maps the rovers’ scanners produced of the planet’s crust in our immediate area. I first studied the top-down rendering and then the isometric view. Despite the absence of wyrms, the images were still unsettling. The ground beneath our boots was a knotty tangle of twisted tunnels, some of which neared the surface but most of which disappeared beneath the reach of our rovers’ scans. I considered it a small miracle the tanks and the mechs didn’t cause it all to collapse under us.
“Did you find us a restaurant, private Hooke?” Sergeant Hayes asked.
“I’m afraid not, Sarge.”
“I guess we’ll have to raid the pirates’ pantries.”
Izzy hmmed and said, “That never occurred to me…”
“That’s why they gave him the extra stripes,” Corporal Shoji said.
“Let’s quit the chatter, boys,” Captain Obey ordered gently. “Squad up and let’s form two firing lines. Knights and Companies A and B to the front. Lieutenant Flynn, you’ve got the rest.”
“Squires to the rear.”
We formed our lines quickly. Izzy and I were in Squad 3, 4th Platoon, Company C. A half klick away, the Austros Battalion arranged themselves in a similar manner.
“Send up the frisbees,” Captain Obey continued.
Each of our Company leaders flung a dinner plate-sized disk into the air. The disks continued to rise in the air instead of falling to the ground as the toys they were named after would have done. They climbed to a thousand meters and hovered in place a few hundred meters in front of our lines. They would lead us, serving as eyes-in-the-skies.
“Force Hammerstrike, let’s move out,” Captain Obey ordered, hooking his arm over his head in a follow me gesture.
When all the necessary boots were marching and treads rolling, the Halberds, Spontoons and the one, undamaged Hussar lifted immediately to provide air support. The Santo Colombo followed well in the rear, ready to play field hospital.
Combined, our crysteel hauberk and plasteel plating weighed a little over 30 kilograms. Muvuru-3’s lighter gravity considerably lessened the exertion necessary to trot about in full armor.
After double timing it over a couple of kilometers, we climbed out of the sunken plain. The fog was thinner up top and it reached only to our ankles. The dunes around the sunken plain were few and small. They grew in number and size ahead of us, some rising in graceful sweeps to over three hundred meters.
Beyond the dunes, the top of our target mesa was just visible over the horizon of rolling mounds. The sky above it was coruscant with the flares and flashes of battle. The air trembled slightly with the thunderous concussions of those distant explosions.
Many of us paused at the sight and sounds of the distant battle.
Captain Obey prodded us forward, “Let’s keep it moving. Iron Arm is already on the move. We don’t want them beating us these viper’s den, do we? And be careful not to crest these dunes, lest you come into line of sight of enemy weapons.”
We snaked our way silently through the hills for fifteen minutes before Captain Obey announced suddenly, “Drones incoming. Find yourselves cover!”
The Battle Continues With Chapter – 6!