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Pyrrhic Victory

by James Bright

part 9
section 3

The ship rocked as Hargrove juked and dived through asteroids, even daring to leave the belt once or twice to get away from enemy scouts trying to shoot him down. Erik hunkered down and let Hargrove handle this one. It was one thing to go through this when he could focus on hacking, but he’d always hated speed flying when there was nothing to occupy his mind.

Hargrove clicked the intercom back on and quickly said, “Might as well flip on a song or something and keep yourself amused for a while,” before focusing on tight turns and avoiding crashing into enemy scouts again.

This was what life was about for him, the speed of the chase and the moments of decision. It was why Hargrove and Johansen had been paired. Their skill sets matched up. Hargrove the transporter, Johansen the payload.

Two separate groups of scouts ended up chasing them at the same time. Hargrove jumped deep into the asteroid belt and made a series of confusing turns even he couldn’t keep track of except to keep going forward without looking back. The scouts tried following him, which resulted in several mid-space collisions and the destruction of all but two of the eight original trackers. Hargrove was on a streak.

All they had to do was survive for two hours, and the enemies would have more on their minds than they could handle. Hargrove kept his eyes open for more insane turns he could use to shake off these last two pursuers. He managed to duck deep enough into the asteroid belt to finally lose them.

Keeping one eye on the proximity alarm, Hargrove took the chance to look around. The flagship was still dead in space, while several other ships were lazily floating, as if they were now aimless. He watched as other ships came to rest at what were probably preset destinations and stood still, apparently waiting for their next orders. Whatever Erik’s virtual soldiers had done, it had taken the brain out of this fleet.

A sudden motion caught his eye and Hargrove turned to see one of the other Sights zipping out of the asteroid belt followed by enemy scouts. He counted six scouts following their companion, his screens showed it was Sight Three.

That was the last moment Hargrove saw the ship before it re-entered the asteroid belt moving faster than even Hargrove would dare to go. Seconds later there were two sharp flashes of light visible miles up the asteroid belt from where Sanderson had gone in. Moments later Sight Three appeared and did a victory loop before ducking back into the belt near where it had first appeared trailing enemies. That was the best reason Sanderson was on the mission, regardless of his attitude.

Hargrove flipped the intercom back on and asked, “How are you holding up, Erik?”

“Better, now that the commotion is over, Captain.”

“Sorry about that; had to shake some baddies.” Hargrove was still feeling pumped from the fast flying and the demonstration of a better pilot’s skills.

“I know, Captain. All is forgiven.” Erik made the sound a child makes when sticking his tongue out. “Let’s just stay alive until the fleet arrives to claim my prize. I’d like to see it happen.”

“We will, Hacker. Just sit tight. I’m going to see how the others are faring. I already know how Sanderson is, I just watched him smoke some enemies of his own.”

“I saw that on my screen too. He’s as good as you, Captain.”

“He’s better. That’s the only reason I’m not pushing to have him court-martialed after that stunt he pulled earlier. I hope he just retires with dignity after the war and quietly slips out of sight so people like you and me can get our fair chance out here.”

Erik nodded to himself. “What do you plan on doing when the war ends?”

“I haven’t decided yet. I love ships, might get into engineering and go into ship designing. On the other hand, this war has killed plenty of people on both sides already, including top-level officials. I might stay in service and try for an admiral’s post, get into politics. You?”

“Find a desk job doing security or something like that. Wasn’t an on-the-field warrior before my sentence, I don’t plan on being one after it’s not needed.”

The proximity alarm beeped and Hargrove shifted the ship into full speed to dodge incoming enemies, before jetting into line of sight of Sight Two. He hailed them on the long range communicators. “Sight Two, this is Sight One. How’s the mission going? Over.”

“Sight One, this is Sight Two. It’s good to hear your voice and mission is going smooth as a freshly scraped ice rink, over.”

“Good job, Sight Two. Keep it up, over.”

“I think I can say the same to you, Sight One. Was that your Hacker who killed the flagship? Over.”

“Yes, it was. Time to see how Sight Four is doing. Hargrove out.”

With that, Hargrove pulled a one-eighty and zoomed off to where Sight Four’s transponder was sensed. The enemy scouting screen seemed to have diminished by now, with only a few parties left zooming about and getting their asses blasted away by Sanderson, showing up brightly on everyone’s sensors now. Hargrove snorted. Sanderson only played it safe until the mission was full swing and the plasma bursts were already flying.

By now, with most of the enemy powered down or dead in indecision, the other Sights were taking more risks. Hargrove zoomed close enough to Sight Four to hail them before seeing a line of light lance across Four’s body exploding brightly in front of him. Hargrove cursed inside and followed the line of light right back to one of the enemy battleships. Apparently not everyone was reliant on the still dead flagship.

A small group of battleships and frigates was slowly falling into defensive position, and the signs of more scouts preparing to launch were clearly visible. Hargrove was smarter than that, and had never turned on a beacon or done anything more than go full speed just above the belt, close enough to dive back in at the first sign of trouble. He did so now and hoped to everything holy that the other surviving Sights did the same.

Just as Hargrove was settling into the asteroids, Erik spoke up. “Captain, look at the coordinates those guys are headed to. The battleships I mean.”

Hargrove looked at his map screen and suppressed a vengeful snarl. The enemy were gathering right in the middle of third volley’s path. Hargrove raced back to where he thought Sight Two and Three would be, hailing each with, “We’re going to keep those bastards right where they are!”

Hargrove looked at the fleet just in time to see the next wave of scouts heading for the belt. Thankfully none of the other Sights had given themselves away once Sanderson had quit his showboating, so the enemies were flying blind. Hargrove risked one last message to the other two, “Avoid them at all costs, don’t give yourselves away.”

He sent the ship into low power and used barely powered flight to stay hidden. Everyone knew if the Conglomerate didn’t see anyone to attack they would probably stay put. It was only a waiting game now, just half an hour to go before the third volley punished those arrogant pricks.

The proximity alarm went off three times during the wait. Each time Hargrove located the enemy and adjusted position to avoid contact. The first two went off without a hitch, while the third was quickly silenced with a couple of plasma blasts and a quick jump to another area. Suddenly the Conglomerate position erupted with light, signaling that third volley had arrived. The computer counted twenty distinct centers of light, with seven ships crippled. The rest had seemingly struck shields and left ships nearly defenseless.

Before anyone could recover from the volley, gravity waves sent alarms going off for everyone, and the Imperial carrier fleet arrived, almost immediately launching an attack of their own as bombers and lancers left their hangar bays and opened fire. Sun bombs and plasma lances struck home, finishing off shields damaged by warp torpedoes and killing recently crippled ships.

Hargrove wasted no time finding the command ship and hailing them. “Flagship Emerald, this is Captain Hargrove of Cannon Sight One, requesting you not fire on the enemy flagship. They are down for the count as a present for the Empire. Over.”

“Cannon Sight One, this is Flagship Emerald. Good to see you survived.” A minute’s pause. “Request acknowledged and respected. The Empire thanks you for your efforts. Out.”

Hargrove watched the battle raging. There apparently was more than one ship capable of commanding the enemy, because every remaining Conglomerate ship was reanimated with purpose. Few ships had gotten through the wait without damage, but even injured they were still going to put up a fight.

The Imperial carriers launched every bomber, lancer, and fighter they had in a wave, leaving Hargrove and Erik to watch in awed silence as the wave approached the Conglomerate fleet. What Conglomerate carriers still had scouts and bombers were launching them to meet the Imperial wave head-on.

The stellar combat was decisive. Outnumbered, the Conglomerate forces easily broke and were quickly picked off by the Imperial fighters as the bombers and lancers struck ahead against the Conglomerate ships. Heated gas and ionized particles struck ship hulls, burning Conglomerate crews alive and rending holes that opened ships’ insides to vacuum.

Some of the Conglomerate warships turned their main weapons against the wave and incinerated the bombers and lancers in their path. The fighters, seeing what was coming and moving faster than their brethren, avoided becoming metal slag, but just barely.

This was a battle between the warships now, it was time for the fighters with their weaker weapons to go home. The Cannon Sights came to the same conclusion and asked permission to dock with the flagship, knowing it would be staying back to command the fleet safely.

* * *

Ship’s security took the pilots and hackers to a debriefing room for their after action reports while maintenance men pulled the data recorders from the ships for analysis. The security officers left the soldiers sitting in the debriefing room with a screen on the wall displaying the battle. The debrief could wait until the area was safe from enemy activity.

Everyone watched as the battle flared up one last time. The carriers’ fresh shields shed blows from the enemy’s main guns, harboring the bombers and lancers that would still sweep in to finish the job they started.

The two fleets struck at one another like duelists, the conglomerates charging their main guns and letting off volleys which the carriers shrugged off. In their turn, the bombers and lancers leapt out of hiding, discharged their plasma and torpedo batteries, and were swooped in on by their parent ships, covering them like birds protecting nestlings from predators.

After the third set of blows traded, the Conglomerate ships started opening warp tunnels, the more injured ships limping away while the ones still in fairly good shape kept the Imperial forces off of them. Even the best of the Conglomerate ships was holed in places, but it stood its ground against the heavily shielded Imperial carriers, readying to fire off another blow.

In the conference room being used for debriefings, Hargrove asked, “Can we control the view screen down here?”

The soldier in charge replied, “You can’t, but I can. What did you want to see?”

“Turn the screen starboard. I want to see the flagship. We left it dead out there as a war prize, I just want to see that it’s not damaged.”

The soldier nodded. “As you wish, Captain.” He turned the screen toward the enemy flagship and Hargrove grunted. The lights on the until now dead flagship were dimly on, and brightening as they watched.

“I guess that war prize isn’t as safe as we thought, Erik.”

“Damn it! I so wanted credit for capturing that thing, too.” A growl, “Don’t let it run. They’ll learn from us as much as we’ll learn from them if that ship gets back.”

The soldier punched the intercom and spoke into it. “Admiral, we have something you’ll want to see. The flagship is waking up.”

The admiral spoke back to the intercom, “Shit. Wouldn’t be so bad if we were already finished mopping up the rest of them. We’ll keep an eye on it.”

“Better do more than that, Hacker Johansen says they’ll learn something of us if that ship gets back.”

The admiral responded, “Yeah, they’ll learn we have some new weapon that can punch them without being seen.” A pause. “They’re not dumb. They’ll notice the warp bubbles our torpedoes popped out of. We’ll make sure they never get away.”

The conference room watched as a pair of carriers and their attachment of warships broke off the fight and moved toward the enemy flagship, ringing it in with lances and bombs at the ready in case the great ship tried anything.

The lights dropped again, but the enemy flagship raised its shields and started its impulse drive, sluggishly crawling forward. One of the bombers fired a round, spearing the shields and lightly damaging them. The enemy ship kept moving forward, picking up speed. Another warning shot lanced out, striking the shield. This time it dropped the shields by a quarter. The lights flickered back on, still dim. The ship lunged towards the rest of its fleet, trying to scare off the carrier fleet.

The lancers and bombers chased the flagship, following it close and readying to strike. Just as the flagship started aiming its main cannon the wave of warships giving chase struck, landing bombs and lances along the ship’s sides, crashing the shields all at once. The sudden drop of the shields overloaded the ship’s core and it powered down. The un-powered ship drifted past the carrier fleet, its crew hopelessly watching their enemies.

Half the surviving Conglomerate fleet had warped out already. The flagship continued drifting, passing the warp tunnel without entering it, left vulnerable to Imperial forces as the remaining half of the fleet made a fighting withdrawal. Three ships broke off and surrounded their fallen commander, fighting off encroaching Imperial forces.

Fighting to the death, the Conglomerate warships attempted to use their impulse drives to steer their flagship toward the warp tunnel, but they were too little, too late. The Imperial carrier fleet killed them one by one before their drives could do the job. In the end, all they managed was to irradiate the flagship’s hull and make it dangerous for foot soldiers to land.

The carriers surrounded the Conglomerate flagship and turned their own impulse drives on it, gradually slowing down their newly recaptured prize before it drifted out system. Once it made a full stop, the carriers launched fully loaded troopships to dock with the newly captured flagship.

The final stage of the battle would take hours, but the flagship was now effectively silenced. There would be no more threat from her except to the marines currently running inside to incapacitate the crew.

It was time to begin the debriefings of the Sight crews, as analysis of the ships’ computers was just starting.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2013 by James Bright

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