The bridges of the screening vessels rattled as the smaller ships tried to maneuver into position and shoot down the oncoming rockets. On the hologram, circles appeared around the icons representing the ships indicating that their radiators were withdrawn due to the imminent combat. The icons began pulsing, indicating that they were firing actively.
Laser pulses and flechette swarms, little more than heavily accelerated sand, spat out from the defending ships and into space. One by one the icons representing the rockets began to wink out as the point defense emplacements struggled to find them in the emptiness of open space. Thirty five of the weapons were transformed into rapidly cooling debris by the time the remainder screamed past the screening ships.
Threedak exhaled. The invaders were targeting the Ashley Koenig. The screening ships would be safe for a while longer. Ultimately it was for the best, the invaders’ firing pattern would allow the screening ships to pour additional point defense fire into their rockets before they arrived. The tradeoff was that the torchship was going to take a beating. Evidently the invaders were more concerned with a complete kill by preventing the screening ships from fleeing than they were efficiency.
Of the thirty six Dhajtel missiles, only three approached the enemy screening units close enough to detonate their warheads. One fusion charge went off far enough from the enemy that it did little more than blind their sensors with a flash of radiation and light. Only one of the two laser warheads actually hit an invader, a spear of coherent x-rays that sublimated a chunk its outer hull into plasma.
Threedak pumped her grasper briefly as a gout of oxygen and debris erupted from the screening ship. The lightly armored craft slewed to the side from the blast and expelled matter, spinning slightly in the frictionless void. Moments later, the flow of oxygen cut off and the enemy ship resumed its previous course as automatic failsafes kicked in.
The Ashley Koenig flickered on the plot as the rockets closed into its point defense envelope. Its larger and heavier lasers shattered the rockets at extreme range whenever the ship’s fire control team could get a proper solution on them. Unfortunately, at least a couple of the approaching rockets were laden with countermeasures rather than warheads, filling space with static and electronic ghost images that suckered the Koenig’s gunners into missing more often than not.
The rockets drew nearer the torchship, their numbers dwindling by twelve. At close range, the Koenig launched defensive flechettes and counter rockets, smaller weapons with only a single stage high performance engine and clean but high yield warhead. The projectiles darted toward each other, brightening the hologram with a series of flashes.
The invader rockets cleared the final engagement window in a moment, the survivors veering wildly to catch up with the diving torchship. Then they detonated. Between the final wave of defenses and the electronic fog created by the Ashley Koenig’s electronic countermeasures, only ten of the rockets were on target. Nine were laser warheads, erasing chunks of the Koenig’s armor in flares of plasma, but the last was a fusion blast.
The bridge crew were uniformly thrown from their couches as the explosion rocked the ship. The schematics on Kahtash’s keyboard glowed amber as the lasers, smaller kinetic cannons and rocket tubes were stripped from an entire side of the vessel. For a moment, its fusion torch flickered dangerously between amber and red before the indicator settled on amber. A sure sign that the housing was cracked or that the engine itself was damaged in some way.
Threedak paced back and forth, her tail flicking nervously as the two battlegroups exchanged blows. With half of her point defense weapons eliminated, the Ashley Koenig struggled to keep up with the onslaught of rockets. The screening ships and drones did their best, gunning down at least fifty of the oncoming projectiles, but sixty to seventy of them got through in each wave.
The Koenig quickly flipped its undamaged side toward the invaders and did its best to weave through the explosions and bursts of x-rays, but it still took a beating. Twenty six x-ray lasers struck its belt armor. Most of them were absorbed by the armor but five struck weak points. Whether from a weapon emplacement buried in the hull, or an area where a previous laser had melted off armor, it didn’t particularly matter. The beams cut deep into the ship’s interior, killing crew women and melting internal machinery.
Threedak’s fangs bit into the soft tissue of her mouth as she stared at the systems flickering from green to amber and amber to red on the display. Luckily, it was able to avoid any further direct hits from warheads. The fusion warheads detonated around the Koenig, but a combination of ECM, deft maneuvering and luck kept any of them from exploding close enough to do anything more than scratch the ship’s paint and dose the crew with a low amount of radiation. A small miracle, but given the almost 250 kilometer range on the laser warheads, it made sense that they would be much more likely to weather a point defense barrage and strike the dodging ship.
Their ships limped through the storm of rockets. Most of the screening vessels were venting steam to try and keep their heat within reasonable levels, and the Koenig looked like a half melted candle covered in craters and divots, but the battle group remained intact. Threedak sighed with relief before taking in the condition of the invader’s screen.
Five screening ships remained, surrounded by a slightly diminished cluster of fighters. A couple of the survivors bore scars from Dhajtel laser warheads, but most of their combat capability appeared to be undiminished. Of course, that wasn’t even taking into account the three untouched invader torchships behind them. Laksheer knew better than to target the more heavily armored and defended warships given the low volume of rockets their battlegroup was able to launch. Their only chance at damaging the invaders was to risk targeting the cheaper and more evasive screening vessels in the hope that their lighter armor would make them more vulnerable.
The Koenig opened fire on the invader screen with its spinal kinetic cannon. Threedak could almost feel the thrum of the great magnetic coils as the torchship fired a fusilade of three rounds into the charging cluster of invader warships. Immediately the ship began venting steam to offset the sudden heat buildup from the energy hungry cannon. The gigantic shells fired their maneuvering thrusters, using their limited tracking ability to keep the agile screening vessels from escaping entirely.
Every ten seconds, the Koenig fired another three round burst at the enemy screening ships. Threedak looked to Kahtash, worriedly.
“Are they not returning fire because they’re low on shells or,” she trailed off, staring at the screen as the first set of shells arrived approximately 20 kilometers from the opposing ships where it separated into a hailstorm of hypervelocity flechettes.
“I don’t know,” Kahtash shook her head. “The limited missiles and support ships implies a supply problem. On the other hand, even if they have all the kinetic shells they need, the invaders don’t see the need to waste them on screening vessels. Even the flechettes seem a bit inefficient against so agile of vessels.”
The first volley hit nothing but space, but the second got lucky. One of the screening ships’ engines failed briefly, likely due to the laser scar that dug deeply into the rear third of the vessel. The ship tried to do a quick burn, like its companions, to evade the incoming cloud of metal, but its engine stuttered, giving the Dhajtel all the opening they needed. Three fifteen centimeter by one meter spears tore through the lightly armored vessel, leaving a trio of neat holes in one flank and a gout of plasma and debris spraying from the other.
A brief cheer went up around the command center as the small vessel died. Threedak didn’t take her eyes from the display. The invader screening ships dodged and wove through the oncoming walls of steel. As the range closed, they managed to catch one more screening vessel and a drone, instantly destroying the ships with the oversized weapons.
Then the three remaining invader screens entered unguided kinetic range, and the plot erupted in fireworks. The Koenig stopped firing its main cannon, instead deploying its armored radiators to try and grant its laboring heat syncs some respite while the drones and screening vessels rushed toward each other, firing everything.
The Dhajtel ships on the display flickered as all four screens opened fire with their dual mounted railguns. The weapons were modular as the rails tended to burn out and required replacement after forty to fifty shots, but they were cheap, light and deadly. Everything a forward picket needed.
The drones wove together, firing autocannons into each other at knife range. The small craft only had a couple seconds of contact before their relative velocities pulled them apart, but those seconds were an orgy of destruction. At a kilometer away, even the most maneuverable craft was entirely unable to dodge, and an almost continuous ripple of explosions later, only eight Dhajtel and fourteen invader drones remained.
Another cheer went up in the command center as a railgun round slammed into the flank of an invader screen, ripping a furrow through the ship’s armor and spinning it like a top. The elation guttered out as an invader railgun round slammed into the prow of a Dhajtel screen. The bridge crew were flung forward into their restraints as their ship suddenly lost momentum. A moment later it lost all power as secondary explosions from the kinetic penetrator that cored it destroyed the vessel’s fusion reactor.
The average railgun shot wasn’t enough to destroy a screen. Their light armor barely even slowed the penetrators, but the slugs were only large enough to destroy a couple rooms at a time. Grim redundancy kept most of the screens on both side in the fight until they took three or four blows, but before long the Dhajtel’s superior numbers bore fruit and the last invader screen floated dead in space, trailing a plume of twisted metal and plasma. Unfortunately, the weakened and limping survivors of the engagement were easy prey for the drones.
Threedak winced as the two remaining Dhajtel screens tried frantically to shoot down the oncoming drones. Unfortunately, a laser pulse could only do so much at longer ranges. So long as the fighters made sure to juke and roll enough to prevent the lasers from focusing on one spot long enough to melt through their armor, it was difficult for the crippled screens to kill enough of the small craft to make a difference. Of the fourteen drones that made it through the dogfight, only five avoided the screens’ defenses long enough to achieve close range, but each of those erupted a little over 3 kilometers from the Dhajtel vessels.
Spears of light reached out from the explosions, plowing meter-wide holes deep into both screens. Their displays went red on the plot, and immediately the data being relayed to the Ashley Koenig through them from the drones ceased. Silence filled the command center as the invader drones robbed them of even that partial victory.
“What in the hell was that!” Kahtash erupted into the silence. “I need an analyst to tell me what the hell just happened before I have to fucking eat them and pull the answer from their memories!”
For a second, no one dared respond. Then a rust colored Dhajtel hesitantly raised a grasper.
“No need to be shy,” Kahtash gestured toward her with frustration. “Out with it already.”
“Ma’am,” her tail twitched spasmodically in agitation. “The readings look like a Casaba Howitzer.”
“I don’t remember humanity ever getting those to work at any sort of operational range,” Threedak cut in, frowning.
“Humanity didn’t,” the brownish red Dhajtel shook her head. “They couldn’t figure out a way to properly focus the nuclear blast to prevent the plasma from dispersing. By the time the invaders came, they considered it a dead field and moved on to other pursuits.”
“A what howitzer?” Kahtash asked with a frown. “Remember, not all of us inherited William Drisco’s memories. My knowledge of physics is limited to how engines and weapons work.”
“Sorry ma’am,” the analyst responded nervously. “Casaba Howitzers are nuclear charged directed plasma weapons. A modified warhead vaporizes a shaped plate into plasma which is fired as an incredibly high velocity jet. It disperses very quickly meaning that you need to get close to use it, but it’s basically a much more dangerous version of our laser warheads at close range.”
Any further discussion was cut off by the command center’s communicator chirping.
“My Queen, Admiral,” Captain Laksheer’s voice slurred, her image battered and stained with both soot and blood. “We are entering extreme kinetic range of the enemy torchships. Tell my daughters to sing songs of me.”
She cut the connection, and the command center staff watched in silence as the Ashley Koenig withdrew its radiators and powered the capacitors for its main cannon. Both sides began firing at almost the same time. It took almost thirty seconds for the kinetic rounds to cross the space between the ships and in that time the Koenig managed to fire 9 shells. Already, the crippled ship’s heat sinks were beginning to run hot as it futilely tried to vent enough steam to make a difference.
The invader’s partially guided shells tore into the Koenig like a starvok through carrion. Captain Laksheer gave orders with an impossible calm as her armor shattered and systems began to fail. She fired off one last salvo before a penetrator tore through her ship’s forward reactor and cannon assembly.
Her return fire wasn’t in vain. At least three flechette shells and one penetrator severely damaged an invader torchship, ripping most of its fore armor off and exposing a good portion of its inner workings to space.
Another penetrator struck the Koenig and the image from the bridge winked out along with the ship’s sensor feed. No one spoke, respecting the tears tracing down Threedak’s scaled muzzle as she wept for her granddaughters.