Chapter One: An Unpleasant Surprise
Kalkar System: Feb 5th 4009 Old Terran Calendar
Stealth in space was a matter of electronic warfare systems divided by hull size. In practical terms that meant only destroyers and light cruisers were truly stealthy. Heavy cruisers could sneak around against opponents who weren’t alert or experienced but that was always a gamble. Attempting to hide any ship larger than about half a million tons was a futile gesture.
The VBS Roaming Songbird had a different problem. At forty thousand tons the frigate was smaller than a destroyer but lacked powerful enough EW systems to hide in open space. Other more modern navies had stopped building frigates decades ago but the Breyland navy needed as many hulls as it could get; simply to act as messenger couriers if nothing else. Besides a pair of frigates could fight a destroyer and being warp-capable could run away from a hopeless engagement unlike fast attack craft.
All that was well and good but what mattered at the moment was that the Breyland Navy’s use of frigates gave a lot of young officers their first chance at an independent command. Lieutenant Parker McLaren watched his command display very nervously as he waited for the reconnaissance drone to come into secure communication range. “We should be seeing the trace any time now.” He muttered to himself.
A long tense minute later the call came,” Contact, sir. Faint trace. ID still uncertain.”
“Plot an intercept, bring our engines to one quarter power. No higher. Just get us as close as you can Mr. Kerensky.”
“Aye, aye, one quarter power, sir.” The Sub-Lieutenant who was acting as both XO and lead navigator replied. “Still being cautious?”
“If we can we need to get out of here without the locals spotting us.” McLaren answered. “and with our hardware disadvantage we can’t be sure they haven’t set up passive sensor arrays among the gas giant’s moons.”
The slender mercenary-adventurer politely declined to comment on how inferior the Breyland Navy hardware was; especially compared to his native Concordia. Breyland civilian technology was for the most part as good if not better than their neighbours but their military tech base was atrociously behind the times. “Passive arrays? That far out from the main planet? These are just pirates.”
“Very well equipped pirates, Marc.” McLaren said coldly as he reflected on where those pirates would have gotten that equipment from. “And recon frigates are supposed to be cautious. Speaking of which anything more on that drone?”
Ensign Hwan looked up from the tactical display,” No sir, the trance is a beginning to strengthen but I still have no firm ID or…”
“Enemy drone?” Kerensky speculated. “launched along the same path as our drone after they intercepted it?” It was a ludicrous idea on the face of it.
“Mr. Hwan, Bring our point defences online,” McLaren ordered humoring the Concordian. “Better paranoid than dead.”
Hwan looked displeased but said nothing as he begin spinning up the frigate’s six defensive laser clusters. McLaren almost reminded the ex-NCO about keeping the PD lasers in passive sensor mode but caught himself before he did so. Mr. Hwan knew his business and had earned his rank the hard way.
“Drone ID Mk seventeen B. Identification code confirmed,” The petty officer standing to Ensign Hwan’s right announced. McLaren breathed a sigh of relief.
“That’s an old drone.” Hwan said in disbelieve. “Seventeen B… would be at least eighty years old. The Vulcan wouldn’t be carrying a drone that old.”
The petty officer double checked his display,” Sirs everything checks out. The code is valid.”
“Mr. Holland is the drone responding to telemetry commands?” Hwan barked. “At this range…
“No sir, drone is acknowledging my commands but not responding,” The rating at the drone control station answered.
McLaren’s own words echoed in his ears. Better paranoid than dead. “Condition Alpha!”
“Roger that!” Hwan answered with a veteran’s roar of confidence,” Emcon Charlie, raising shields, bringing duel purpose lasers online. Reconfiguring EW systems to combat ECM.”
“Engines to half power. Engineering reports, five minutes to full speed.” Kerensky replied in turn.
Good men, better than he deserved, McLaren thought. “Break for the hyperlimit. We’re done here one way or another.”
“New contact! Gravitic and TachPulse! Mass estimate… seventy kilotons. Range nine light-seconds.” Hwan reported. “Closing on us at about two thirds speed.”
“Roger,” McLaren replied his mind spinning his barely armed ship had no business even trying to engage a ship that large. “The drone?”
“Profile change! The Drone is moving to intercept us. Unknown type!” Hwan’s assistant reported.
“I’m gonna snap shoot a Stingray at it.” Hwan announced. The Songbird didn’t have much of the way in magazine space and shooting an older LM-3 missile at the drone would save her handful of semi-modern LM-5 Pilum’s in case one of pirates did manage to get into range.
“Do it!” McLaren proclaimed as he begun to crunch the numbers in his head.
“Sir, that is definitely an attack drone, engine signature indicates Concordian origin.” Holland reported. Kerensky stuttered slightly at this. Not that McLaren or his crew would hold anything against him.
“Missile away! Reloading tube three with Pilum,” Hwan reported.
“Marc? Any idea what that thing is?” McLaren asked the mercenary.
“Attack drone? K series maybe? Three light attack missiles… good EW systems.” Kerensky answered. “It’ll see the missile coming and fire before it’s destroyed.”
“If those are first line Cordie missiles we’re not going to be able to stop all three, Skipper.” Ensign Hwan said. “Even if they launch at max range.”
“No they’d have to be export versions. Wouldn’t they?” Kerensky squealed. “They’d have to be?”
They’d find out shortly. Concordian didn’t sell much in the way of arms but a lot of their smaller allies were feeling the need for cold hard cash in the aftermath of the recent trade collapse. The fact that the pirates had any Concordian arms at all was going to make taking back this system a hell of a lot harder.
“Missile impact in three seconds,” Hwan announced. “Stingray is tracking…”
“Counterlaunch detected! Vampire count four!” Holland reported.
“Okay so it wasn’t a K series.” Kerensky muttered mostly to himself.
The Songbird had four counter-missile launchers, two dual purpose lasers and six point defence lasers. Against four missiles of equal technology that would have likely proven enough to prevent any hits. However even older Concordian hardware was going to be a challenge and while a single hit wasn’t likely to destroy the Songbird a crippling hit that took out an engine or two would slow the frigate enough for the incoming pirate heavy destroyer to intercept them short of the hyperlimit.
“Counter-missiles launching,” Hwan announced. There would be time for two salvos and then one last ditch chance with the lasers. “Gremlin-1 destroyed.” He added almost as an afterthought.
“Shields at fifty-two percent, engine power at sixty-three percent, Defensive ECM at full capacity.” Kerensky reported. The mercenary might be embarrassed by the strangeness of facing his home nation’s weaponry but he was still an academy trained naval officer and knew what information his captain needed.
“Second launch away! First intercept… now!”
Four incoming missiles became three incoming missiles.
“Second intercept… now!”
A second missile was intercepted. Two remaining.
The sixty five millimeter dual purpose lasers did their best but to no avail.
Only five of the Songbird’s point defence lasers could engage. A third missile was destroyed cleanly. The final incoming missile took only a partial hit but that was enough to throw it off target. Not before it had a chance to arm its forty megaton warhead however and a bright angry fireball appeared less than a hundred kilometers astern of the ship and a wave of energy struck the rear shields.
The Songbird shook from the near miss but the shields held and engine power continued to rise.
“Time to hyperlimit Mr. Kerensky?” McLaren asked.
“Estimated time eight minutes, forty seconds. Enemy destroyer has broken off pursuit,” Kerensky answered.
“Prepare to hyper out,” McLaren ordered.
“Direct line to Gloria?” Kerensky asked.
“Direct line, no point getting fancy.” McLaren answered. Gloria was the only real base in this region so there was little point in disguising their movements. “and who knows maybe they’ll be stupid enough to follow us?”
That got a chuckle from the bridge. In theory you could follow a ship using a direct line. In practice the risk of being ambushed by the ship you had been chasing before you could bring your ship’s systems bring online after exiting hyperspace was high enough to make interstellar hot pursuit something you only saw in movies.
“Navigation check complete. Warpcoil fully charged. All subsystems nominal,” Kerensky announced. “Clear to jump as soon as we hit the limit.”
“Good work, everyone.” McLaren declared. “Let’s just hope the Vulcan got out as well.
It was a somber thought that haunted the Songbird’s men as their ship entered the safety of hyperspace. Their mission had failed, by no fault of their own but they would live to fight another day.