Groombridge 34: Federation Shipyard
ASTRA woke us in the morning when she had finished her analysis of the shipyard's security arrangements. Karina and I dressed into our flight suits and sat side-by-side on the bridge, listening intently as the AI presented her findings. There were no obvious holes in the routine patrol schedules and routes that surrounded the colossal drydock where the Farragut-class battlecruiser was being constructed, but ASTRA had identified one weakness. The perimeter guards flew round the clock in six hour shifts, and during the changeover there was a five minute window where the active sensor coverage scanning the shipyard was entirely directed towards the centre of the solar system. It wasn't much of an opening, but one that was long enough to allow us to bring our cover asteroid through supercruise from the inner fringe of the Oort Cloud close enough to the shipyard to allow us to begin the infiltration in realspace. Then we would take advantage of a later shift change to commence the torpedo attack itself. ASTRA had calculated the approach practically to the millimetre.
"How close do you think we can get without being detected, ASTRA?"
"1.2 light seconds, my lord."
"That's a long way to travel in realspace." I grimaced. "If we disable the velocity restrictions on the flight computer, how fast do you think we could get this asteroid going?"
"In theory, we could get up to over 5 kilometres per second and still have enough fuel to extract to Ross 248." ASTRA replied. "But anything over 2.5 kilometres per second would raise suspicions as to not being a natural body this far out from Groombridge 34B."
"How long will it take to get from the infiltration point to the shipyard?"
"42 hours, give or take a few minutes, my lord." ASTRA said. Even the normally breezy AI sounded subdued at the prospect of trying to infiltrate such a heavily defended area, all too aware of our marginal chance of success. "A few extra seconds in supercruise could make a big difference, but it's far harder to track an object in realspace than it is in supercruise."
"Even though we've already disabled the ship's IFF transponder?" Karina asked. One of the highly illegal modifications that Agent Zeta had made to the ship was the ability for the ship's AI to either scramble or complete block the transmissions from the ship's IFF module. Installation of ship IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) was mandated by the Pilots' Federation, giving each ship a unique code held on the galaxy-wide Pilots' Federation database. The units were manufactured exclusively on the Pilots' Federation homeworld in Shinrarta Dezhra, self-powered and inviolable, broadcasting at all times on dedicated hyperwave frequencies that kept the system authorities aware of the location of the ships in the space under their control. While it was impossible to stop the units from broadcasting, the research scientists working for Imperial Intelligence had created the right mix of polarised meta-materials capable of distorting or blocking the hyperwave transmissions from the IFF unit. The IFF blocker needed to be used sparingly, even if it was only being used to scramble the ship ID. Signal outages of greater than 72 hours would attract unwanted attention from the Pilots' Federation, especially if the ship concerned wasn't under the command of a well-regarded explorer whose path often took them far beyond the fringes of occupied space.
"Within 5 light seconds of the installation there is a chance that the facility's perimeter scanners will be able to detect the ship's frame shift wake, regardless of whether the signal from the IFF unit is being jammed or not." ASTRA said, her disembodied voice clearly unhappy at the prospect. "The closer we get to the shipyard, the more likely we are to be discovered before we even make the transit to realspace."
"ASTRA's right, we can't afford to blow our cover before we even get in sight of the target. We'll have to hope no-one comes too close sniffing around the asteroid on our approach." I wasn't happy about spending nearly two days drifting through the outer reaches of the system, but if it was the only way of getting within range of the battlecruiser to launch the fusion warhead torpedoes, I would have to put up with it. “How close will we be able to ride the asteroid to the drydock before the defence force gets twitchy?”
“Anything closer than twenty kilometres will trigger a near-miss protocol by the perimeter defence force.”
“That's closer than I expected.”
“The system has a high incidence of cometary activity due to perturbations of the Oort Cloud by the binary stars, my lord. If they destroyed every comet nucleus that came within 100 kilometres of the shipyard, they wouldn't have enough ships left to establish a perimeter.”
“Makes you wonder why they picked such an active system to site a shipyard.” I said, wondering aloud.
“Primarily to discourage casual exploration of the outer system, my lord. The comets can pose a navigation hazard for inexperienced pilots.” ASTRA explained. “It also makes it easy to spot intruders – the location of the shipyard is common knowledge. Anyone without the proper clearances to approach within 1000 light seconds is liable to be interdicted and destroyed with no questions asked.”
“Just as well we're off the transponder grid, then.” Karina said with some relief, glancing over at me.
“So when do we leave to hit our window, ASTRA?”
“The next opportunity to begin our infiltration of the shipyard will be in two hours, thirty six minutes, my lord.” ASTRA replied. “I have taken the liberty of programming the navigation computer with the approach profile that will have the asteroid achieve its closest approach to the drydock just as the perimeter guards are changing shifts the day after tomorrow at 6am.”
“Thank you, ASTRA. We've got time for a good breakfast before we go, then.”
Karina and I ate sous vide bacon rashers and scrambled eggs directly from the cooking pouches in silence, the atmosphere in the galley thick with apprehension, before changing into our flight suits and settling back down into our respective seats on the flight deck. As the countdown ASTRA projected on the HUD ticked ever closer to the start of our mission, Karina and I prepped the systems of the ship for frame shift and combat. Once we dropped out of supercruise, we would be running only the most critical systems at minimal power to reduce our chance of being discovered by active sensor scans. This meant that it would get close to freezing in the cabin, though the heating elements woven through the fabric of our flight suits would fend off the worst of the cold.
Under ASTRA's direction, I had altered the configuration of the ship's frame shift field emitters, subtly altering the shape of the negative energy envelope it would use to propel the Clipper and its asteroid cocoon through compressed higher dimensions of space towards the shipyard. The AI assured me that the realignment would minimise the necessary damage to the frame shift drive itself and that the extra mass burden the bulk of the asteroid posed would not completely trash the drive.
ASTRA assumed control of Fell From The Top(...)'s systems as the mission clock ticked down to zero. Our approach required a far greater precision than any human pilot could manage, so while I was reluctant to hand over complete control of the ship, even to one of the most sophisticated AIs in production, I didn't really have any choice. A miscalculation of the merest fraction of a second or a thousandth of an arcsecond in our course to the shipyard could arouse suspicions that would end in our swift destruction.
“Frame shift in five, four, three, two, one... mark.” ASTRA announced, her countdown in perfect synchronisation with the mission clock on the HUD.
The familiar luminescent wrinkling of the energies emitted from the frame shift drive coiled the space before the nose of the ship, though the normally circular tunnel was distorted laterally into an egg shape to accommodate the bulk of the asteroid. The transit to supercruise was accompanied by a horrific electronic screech of protest from the FSD, overloaded components in the drive sparking and shorting out spectacularly. I checked the damage on the modules board to my right hand side. The frame shift drive's functionality was down to 53% and dropping at a rate of 1% every 20 seconds.
“ASTRA, are we going to be able to reach the insertion point before the FSD gets damaged beyond repair?” I asked, concerned at the severity of the damage that had already been inflicted.
“Yes, my lord. Disengaging drives in four minutes, thirty-nine seconds.” ASTRA replied, trying to sound reassuring.
I had to keep my arms crossed, gripping my biceps tightly to prevent myself from fiddling with the flight controls. The tension was unbearable. With our external sensors offline, there was no way to know whether a patrol had somehow detected our supercruise wake and was even now moving into position to intercept. The first clue we would have would be the tell-tale metallic groaning of when an interdiction link was established, and by then, it would be too late to activate the ship's defensive systems to fight them off. Karina seemed remarkably calm in contrast to my nervousness, watching the HUD intently as ASTRA mimicked the course a cometary nucleus would take towards the inner system, dragged in away from the Oort Cloud by the resonant gravitational tugs from the system's two stars. I found her innocent curiosity oddly calming, the flicker of her green eyes back and forth over information illuminating the HUD distracting me from my worries about whether we had already been discovered. I turned my attention back to the right-hand dash panel to monitor the health of the frame shift drive. The rate of damage caused by hauling the mass of the asteroid through supercruise had doubled, and was getting worse the longer the FSD was active.
“ASTRA...” I began, now beyond mere concern and bordering on panic. If the frame shift drive was destroyed before we reached the insertion point, we would have a very difficult time explaining ourselves to the Federal security force.
“I know, my lord. ” ASTRA interrupted me, uncharacteristically. Even the AI sounded tense. “We're almost there. Exiting supercruise in 60 seconds.”
Fell From The Top(...) crashed back into realspace with just 17% of the functionality of the frame shift drive remaining. The strain on the module had caused some feedback damage to the thrusters and power plant, though thankfully both of these modules still had nearly 90% health, and could be easily repaired by the Automatic Field Maintenance Unit.
“Deactivating all systems.” ASTRA reported. “Entering repair mode.”
A faint whirring could be heard in the bowels of the ship as ASTRA activated the AFMU, the 3D printers synthesizing replacement parts out of the smart nanogels stored in the unit, bringing the power plant and thrusters back up to 100% health before expending the remaining nanogel reserves to restore as much functionality as possible to the frame shift drive. When the 3D printers ran dry, the FSD had been restored to 73% health, more than enough to exfiltrate the system without incurring further damage to the module.
Now that the ship had been repaired as much as was possible outside of a starport, our next job was to commence the burn that would accelerate the asteroid to skirt the fringes of the shipyard's perimeter. Here again we potentially vulnerable to detection, but it was unlikely that anyone would see the thrusters of the ship burning over one light second out from the nearest planet. ASTRA again resumed command of the ship's systems, reactivating the thrusters and repositioning the Clipper on the surface of the asteroid so that the impulse from the main thrusters would redirect the path of our cover into a corridor close enough to the battlecruiser to launch our strike, but far enough away from the shipyard itself not to raise suspicions and provoke the defence force into destroying the asteroid.
“Thruster safeguards disabled.” ASTRA said, sounding almost reluctant. By law, ships were normally limited to relative velocities of less than 500m/s, to compensate for the sluggish reactions of human pilots. ”Commencing insertion burn. Burn time five hours, fifty-three minutes, forty-one seconds. Final relative velocity, 2497.6m/s.”
While the thrusters were not designed to burn at maximum delta-v for such long periods, it was unlikely that the units would suffer any damage, as we would not be using the afterburners. ASTRA had also managed to maintain the orbital velocity of the asteroid around Groombridge 34B upon our exit from supercruise, meaning that we would need a much shorter burn time to achieve our desired intercept velocity. If we had exited supercruise at a relative velocity of zero compared to the drydock, it would have taken over 5000 hours of burn time to give enough of an impulse to the huge bulk of the asteroid to make the infiltration of the facility possible – way beyond the fuel carrying capacity of the Imperial Clipper, even if all of its internal compartments had been converted to fuel tanks. As it was, we would still burn through over half of our fuel reserves, but that would not compromise our choice of which system we would escape to. We would still have enough fuel for a maximum range jump. Karina and I kept watch through the canopy for the tell-tale signs of movement that would give away an approaching ship, our eyes constantly scanning the background of stars for sharp pinpricks of light in parallax motion against the fixed patterns of unfamiliar constellations. The limited view from the cockpit and the high level of concentration required was simultaneously draining and nerve shredding, building a sensation of paranoia that just out of sight an ambush force was being gathered, waiting until we were at our most vulnerable before striking.
Time burned away as slowly as our fuel reserves, the asteroid falling into the astronomically tiny interception corridor past the drydock containing our target, but still the attack did not come, though I shouldn't have been surprised. We were still over a day and a half away from the shipyard. Once the AI was satisfied with our velocity and trajectory, ASTRA turned the ship about and resettled Fell From The Top(...) back into the crater hollow we had carved out for her with the ship's beam laser. The insertion burn had given the asteroid a precisely calculated but natural-looking rotation around it's long axis of a fraction under seven hours. The hollow we were tucked into faced away from the centre of the system, keeping the ship in permanent shadow, but the precession of the asteroid around it's axis would allow us to visually survey more of the sky as our cover approached the shipyard. Thankfully, the rotation was slow enough not to cause any sensations of motion sickness.
With the manoeuvring phase of the insertion completed, ASTRA reduced the output of the power plant to a bare minimum, just enough to keep the life support systems running and give the torpedo pylons enough power to maintain the containment fields of the antimatter warheads in our experimental torpedoes. ASTRA kept the systems capacitors charged to allow a rapid startup of the main systems, including the FSD, thrusters, shields, weapons and sensors, but the modules themselves were completely shut down to minimise the ship's thermal signature. If the asteroid was actively scanned, we had to hope that the heavy metal content of the asteroid would disguise the presence of the ship.
We were now in the hands of chance, gravity and the precision of ASTRA's calculations. ASTRA had reported that we would reach closest approach 24.81 kilometres from the battlecruiser's drydock precisely 39 seconds into our five minute window during the changeover of security patrols. Karina and I sat on the bridge in alternate shifts of six hours, hunting for any signs of incoming ships, trying to snatch a few hours' rest or get something to eat when it was not our turn to keep watch. Frost began to form on the inside of the canopy as the thermal energy inside the ship seeped slowly through the spaceframe. I couldn't contain a smile as the moisture in my breath condensed in the air before me. The cold was invigorating, reminding me of the covert docking training exercises I had enjoyed in my youth at the flight school in Fotla. Karina seemed equally resilient to the cold, explaining when I asked that her former slave masters routinely kept the cargo container that had been her home at such temperatures, and that she had not had the benefit then of a heated flight suit.
“They liked to keep us cold, hungry and alone.” Karina said, her voice flat and with a sadness in her eyes. “So that we would look forward to being taken out.”
With little else to do while we kept watch for incoming ships, Karina told me about her life in captivity, opening up about her past for the first time, perhaps recognising that this might be the only time she would have an opportunity to speak with anyone about it. She had very little memory of events prior to the last couple of years. Presumably she had chosen to forget the trauma inflicted on her by the slavers as a defence mechanism, but she told me sickening tales of the depravity and tortures she had been subjected to by Theriault and her other recent masters. We sat together on the floor of the flight deck, behind the pilot and co-pilot stations, my arms around Karina both for emotional support and shared warmth. By now even the deck was covered in frost.
“They let us out of the pods every few days to be serving girls in the galley and we had to try and eat without being caught. It was a game to them. If they caught us stealing food from their plates, they would use us on the tables. But that was nothing compared to when slavers would celebrate after a raid, master. They drugged us in our pods and we would wake up tied down to benches, so they could use us for hours. Sometimes days. They would always make sure that it hurt, so that no matter how long they kept us like that, we couldn't sleep. But the worst thing was the screaming. If a girl screamed too much, they would blow her collar.”
“How many of you were there?” I asked, wiping away one of Karina's tears to stop it freezing in her eye.
“Ten, sometimes twenty. The slavers never minded if a couple of girls died each week. They could always find more.” Karina said, her tone utterly devoid of emotion. “I think some of them just liked killing.”
“How did you manage to survive that for so long?”
“It was better than being alone in the pod, master. I couldn't bear being alone. And afterwards they would let us wash and eat.” Karina buried her face in my shoulder as she recalled the memory, letting me stroke her hair and the back of her neck. “And the head pirate liked me. He liked to save me for last.”
“The one whose Cutter we destroyed?”
Karina nodded, shuddering. “Yes. But when he got bored of me, he sold me to Master Theriault, and he was even worse.”
“I'm glad I killed him, too.” I rocked Karina in my arms slowly, kissing the top of her head in sympathy, remembering how Karina had told me about how the Duke had mistreated his slaves. “He was transporting you and some of his other slaves when I intercepted him. Why was he going to sell you back to the slaver group?”
“I didn't scream when he had me whipped, master. He couldn't finish unless they screamed and bled.”
“Karina, I think you're probably the bravest woman I've ever known.” I tipped back her head and kissed her on the lips.
“Thank you, master.” Karina smiled thinly, hugging me back. “It's better with you, master. You never hurt me. I enjoy it with you.”
Karina had meant the words kindly, but I was stung by the implication that she was comparing the way I treated her with her slave masters – like she didn't realise that she meant more to me than something to be traded or used like an inanimate commodity. “Karina, you do realise no-one will own you ever again, right? You don't have to call anyone 'master' – least of all me. I'm your friend, not your keeper.”
“But you'll always be my master.” Karina hugged me tightly, nonplussed. “I don't want to leave you. I love you, Master Aemon.”
“Karina, one day you'll have to. You have to find your own life, your own career. But I'll always be your friend.”
“No, master.” Karina shook her head, holding me closer. “I want to stay with you.”
Her voice carried with it such an edge of fear that I let the subject drop, rather than upset her further. We sat together in silence, Karina reassured by my arms around her, her eyes closed as she rested her head on my shoulder. I felt the slow rhythm of her breathing against my chest and let my own breath fall into the same pattern, my eyes looking up and out of the frozen canopy, watching the stars wheel by almost imperceptibly. We must have fallen asleep in each other's arms sitting on the deck, because the next thing I knew ASTRA was summoning me to the pilot's chair with an urgent alarm. I glanced at the mission clock and we were now only two and a half hours from the point of closest approach.
Karina cried out in surprise as I lurched to my feet, dragging her up with me. I gave her a gentle nudge towards the copilot seat as I blinked away ice crystals from the corners of my eyes, letting my vision clear as I slid into my chair and pulled the flight controllers toward me.
“My lord, I have detected three active scans on the asteroid in the last five minutes.” ASTRA warned gravely. “The signal strength of the scans is increasing. I believe we have a ship inbound.”
“What should we do, master?” Karina turned to me, her hands trembling. “Should I power up the main drive and weapons?”
“Not yet, Karina. We might as well make it difficult for them.” I waved her down, trying to remain calm myself. “ASTRA, any idea whether we've been detected?”
“The signal strength was below the threshold for a positive return, my lord. It is unlikely that they have detected the ship. Standard procedure would mandate a visual scan of the asteroid at this point.”
“Let's hope they're sloppy and not interested in getting too close. I can't see a ship out there, can you?”
Minutes passed like hours as we drifted blind and helpless further towards the perimeter of the shipyard. I dared not risk activating the sensors to get a better picture of what might be lurking on the other side of our cover asteroid, as the radar signals would give our location away. It was even too much of a risk to activate the communications array to monitor any hyperwave traffic between the perimeter guards and the shipyard – the comms unit would automatically return a message receipt confirmation to the originator of the signal, again giving away our presence, if not our precise location. We had to wait and trust that our luck would hold. One factor in our favour was that the asteroid was travelling so quickly that any ships trying to intercept us would only get one chance to look over the asteroid, and Fell From The Top(...) was shrouded in the umbra cast by the metallic body's bulk. Another ten minutes dragged by and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a Federal Corvette approximately five kilometres away. It flashed across the canopy in the blink of an eye, receding into the distance. The ship was powerful and well-armed, but slow – it would struggle to catch us back up, provided that the Corvette's commander was even willing to disable the safeties on his thrusters, which did not seem likely. ASTRA alerted us to another active scan from the Corvette, but even at this close range, the masking effect from the heavy metals in the asteroid had kept the return signal from my ship beneath the threshold for a positive identification. We had been lucky, but how much longer would our luck hold out?
The surge of adrenalin had us both fully awake. Even in the numbing cold, there was no chance that we would fall back asleep before we reached the shipyard. With just over two hours to go, Karina and I reviewed our plan a final time. Only one of the antimatter torpedoes had to reach its target for the mission to be successful, so in consultation with ASTRA, I had decided on a slightly different launch profile for each torpedo. The first torpedo would go out completely cold, with no guidance or propulsion active, with only the magnetic impulse from the rail of the torpedo pylon to propel the torpedo towards the target. The torpedo would be almost impossible to detect, even visually, and by the time anyone within the shipyard might notice the incoming weapon, it would be far too late to do anything about it. The torpedo's onboard computer would run a timer to tell it when to detonate the warhead. With a blast radius of some twenty kilometres, provided the initial aiming of the torpedo was somewhere within the vicinity of the drydock, the battlecruiser and much of the shipyard facility itself would be annihilated.
The incredible destructive power of the experimental weapons did pose one problem, however. Even though the torpedoes were hardened against gamma ray bursts and Electronic Counter-Measures systems, they had to be launched far enough apart that if one torpedo detonated prematurely, it wouldn't cook off the other weapons before they had chance to reach the target area. In practical terms, this meant having to launch the weapons at twenty second intervals, extending our engagement time and making it more likely that the security patrols on the perimeter of the shipyard would be able to intercept either the warheads or my ship. With this eventuality in mind, we decided that the second torpedo should act as a decoy, running fully hot with active guidance and full burn from the propulsion unit. I didn't expect this torpedo to reach the drydock, it was simply meant to be a compelling distraction for the defence force, which would be in for a nasty surprise when they shot down the torpedo. The two remaining torpedoes would use a compromise between a hot and cold launch. The guidance and propulsion systems would only be active for one second in every ten, making quick trajectory adjustments and updating the targeting computer with the information necessary to detonate the antimatter warheads at the right time. ASTRA had predicted a 70% probability that at least one of these warheads would slip through without being intercepted.
That just left the minor issue of detaching from the asteroid at the right time, getting into range to deploy the torpedoes and then get out again without either being caught in the blast radius, or being intercepted by the perimeter force providing security for the shipyard. All without knowing precisely how many ships the Federal Navy had stationed at the facility to defend their new Farragut-class battlecruiser until we poked our head out above the cover of our asteroid. “Oh, this is going to be easy.”
“What was that, master?”
“Nothing. Never mind. You know what to do?”
“Talk me through it, then.”
“When ASTRA gives the signal, I activate the sensors and thrusters. You will activate the weapons and target the Farragut.”
“Good, what about the shields and the frame shift drive?”
“Those systems stay down to reduce our thermal signature. We don't turn them on until after the torpedoes have been launched and we have broken the security perimeter.”
“Very good. Well remembered. And what do you do if I get incapacitated and can't fly the ship?” We had discussed every eventuality, including loss of the canopy or the ship being completely disabled.
Karina looked uncomfortable at the thought as she answered. “Get the ship into hyperspace and find the nearest independent port.”
“Exactly. Remember that you need to go to Ross 248 first to reactivate the ship's ID transponder. The jump is already locked into the nav computer.” We had already been off the grid for almost three days. We only had about another six hours before the Pilot's Federation would begin an investigation. We had to 'reappear' in the same place as where the Pilot's Federation had lost the signal, to make it look like there'd been a problem with the transponder unit, which was uncommon, but not unheard of. “But you won't have long to plot the next jump before the Feds send whatever they have left here after you. Don't try to fight, just run to the nearest neutral system. And if I don't make it, sell whatever's left of ship and buy passage on a liner to Adams Orbital. Laure will take care of you.”
“Please, master. Don't make me think of it. Everything will be fine. I know it.”
“Alright then.” I patted Karina's shoulder and pointed to her RemLok helmet. “Let's get our game faces on.”
We both put on our survival masks and checked each other's seals, making sure they were airtight and that the RemLok units were primed and ready. I took a deep breath of pure oxygen and settled back in my seat, caressing the flight controllers gently between my fingertips. The mission clock on the polarised canopy continued to tick down interminably slowly, the anxiety building in my chest as the final minutes elapsed. After what seemed like an eternity, ASTRA signalled that it was time and that we had just entered into our five minute window.
“Okay, Karina. Let's do this.” I said grimly.
Careful to keep our thermal signature to an absolute minimum, ASTRA discharged a heat sink as she ran up the power plant to 50% capacity, giving us enough power to bring the sensors, thrusters and weapons systems online. Karina and I worked quickly, knowing that time was of the essence. As soon as the thrusters had powered up, I released the magnetic lock keeping us attached to the surface of the asteroid and retracted the landing gear, easing the Clipper up out of the shadowy recess it had been hidden in. As soon as I had enough vertical separation, I flipped the ship around, nose to tail, rolling over 180 degrees to keep the surface of the asteroid as a horizon for spacial reference. The shipyard facility was visible only as a group of distant lights, some 100 kilometres away. The Farragut was easily identifiable amongst the half dozen drydocks, due to the intense activity of the robotic builder drones and manned work crews swarming around the five kilometre long hull.
“Torpedoes online. Assuming helm control.” ASTRA reported, the ship taking on a life of its own as the AI ignited the afterburners, boosting us clear of the asteroid and thrusting down towards the centre of the shipyard. The attack had to be automated if the unguided torpedo was to stand any chance of getting near the battlecruiser. Even with my piloting experience, I would not be able to aim the ship precisely enough. An error of few degrees at the point of launch would translate to kilometres by the time the torpedo reached the shipyard. There was a dull thud from the portside underwing pylon. “Torpedo one is away. Detonation in three minutes, twenty-two seconds.”
Fell From The Top(...) rolled away flamboyantly, wingtip over wingtip, ventral thrusters flaring to realign our course to make sure that the torpedo would not be detected by scans aimed at the ship or the decoy torpedo we were about to launch. I had already lost sight of the cold-launched torpedo and it was invisible on our sensors, despite the fact it was so close. I hoped that the Feds would never see it coming. They would see the decoy torpedo, however – which was the entire point, of course. The downside was that it was the equivalent of poking a hornet's nest with a flaming stick. The response of the resident hornets was not going to be welcoming.
“Torpedo two is away.” ASTRA said, again hurling the ship into a separation manoeuvre to ready the launch of our next torpedo. If I hadn't known better, I would have suspected the AI was enjoying itself, being in total command of the ship. We were already three minutes into our assault window. We had two more minutes to launch our two remaining torpedoes and flee the blast zone. The sensors hadn't detected any moves to intercept my ship or the two torpedoes we had already launched, but my combat senses told me that all hell was about to break loose inside the shipyard. I gripped the flight stick and throttle tightly, even though I wasn't able to override ASTRA's control of the ship.
“Torpedo three is away.”
I saw the propulsion unit burn briefly on the rear of the torpedo before the onboard computer shut down the engine and the guidance system, randomly switching on and off to make a semi-stealth approach, the intermittent radar emissions from the homing unit not giving the defence forces long enough to divine its precise location, but enough to indicate a danger was there. As ASTRA carried out the final separation burn to put at least 30 kilometres between each of the launch points, I noticed that the activity of the patrol ships on the perimeter was intensifying, reforming into two distinct groups, each one centred around a pair of Federal Corvettes. If they had not yet detected the decoy torpedo, they soon would.
“Torpedo four is away.” ASTRA almost sounded relieved. “You have control, my lord.”
“Thank you, ASTRA. Let's get the hell out of here.” Our momentum had carried us almost into the blast zone and we had to completely kill the velocity vector that was taking us inwards to the heart of the shipyard before we could turn about and make our escape into witchspace towards Ross 248. This was where we would be most vulnerable, since the light from the ship's main thrusters would illuminate the ship like a beacon. It already looked like there was one group of fast-moving F-63 Condor fighters making straight for us. I was reluctant to activate the comms array to listen in on the chatter between the fighter squadron and their flight controllers, but it was clear that at least one of the groups had seen the decoy torpedo and was moving into a blocking position to shoot it down before it got too close to the ship building facility. “ASTRA, give me a visual of the Farragut. Zemina will want proof the target was destroyed.”
ASTRA projected a small holographic video of the battlecruiser's drydock onto the HUD, sufficiently zoomed out to give us a good view of the rest of the shipyard as well. “Gamma burst detected. Torpedo two destroyed.”
There was a blinding light off to starboard, a radiant white starburst of energy that enveloped the task force that had moved to intercept the decoy missile, vaporising the two corvettes and their attendant fighter squadrons in an instant before decaying away to blackness. Now things were going to get really frantic. I could just imagine the panicked radio chatter between the remaining Federation ships, torn between defending the shipyard and the precious, half-finished Dreadnought, or destroying the Imperial interloper who had attacked them so brazenly. I made sure that the thruster safeties remained off and lit the afterburners once more, trying to put more distance between my ship and the pursuing Condor fighters. I dumped another heat sink to make us harder to detect on sensors before turning to my copilot. “Karina, bring the frame shift drive online.”
“Gamma burst detected. Torpedo four is down.” ASTRA said. I saw on the video feed that most of the second task force had been wiped out as well, and I could just imagine the reluctance of the remaining ships to hunt down any remaining incoming torpedoes. Not that there were that many ships left in the vicinity to defend the drydocks. It seemed unlikely that the three remaining fighter squadrons would be able to hunt down both of the final two torpedoes, and I only needed one to reach the Farragut.
“Time to target on torpedo one and three?” I asked, running up the power plant to full capacity and pouring megajoules of energy into the engines, trying to keep the capacitors charged as I lit the afterburners again and again. Despite the Clipper's fabulous acceleration, the Condors were closing, having abandoned any thoughts of defending the shipyard, intent on drawing Imperial blood. With their thruster safeties disabled, flying those little fighters must have been like trying to ride an unguided missile, but they would be within weapons range in moments.
“Torpedo three will reach the target area in forty-five seconds. Torpedo one in ninety-seven.”
“Master, we should go.” Karina said insistently. The sensors flashed, showing that the Condors were starting to open fire.
“We can't. Not until we've confirmed that the Farragut is destroyed. ASTRA, launch another heat sink. Some chaff too. We just need to hold out for another few seconds.” I grimaced as multi-cannon rounds flashed by the hull, tracers whipping past the canopy like angry fireflies. I began to roll and jink the ship randomly, lighting the dorsal and ventral thrusters to try and throw off the tracking of the targeting computers in the Federation fighters. Six F-63 Condors clung doggedly to my tail, firing indiscriminately, their fire getting ever closer. Now that the Federation pilots were tracking my ship visually, there was no point trying to maintain sensor stealth. “ASTRA, shields up. How long now?”
“Twenty seconds, my lord.” ASTRA replied. The AI's voice was smooth and reassuring. “Taking damage.”
“More chaff.” I lit the afterburners yet again, weaving the ship frantically through the torrent of multi-cannon fire, wincing at every clanging report as the tiny uranium-tipped sabots tore into the exposed hull plates. A quick glance at the modules board showed that they were targeting my frame shift drive to cut off my escape. It was down to 53% integrity, but there was nothing I could do but keep running. While the Condor was a fragile ship on its own, they were deadly when hunting in packs like this. Turning to fight would be suicide. “What I wouldn't give for a mine launcher right now.”
“Shields online.” ASTRA said, much to my relief. The multi-cannons on the Condors were relatively ineffective against shields, and even though they had just recharged and were running understrength, the Clipper's shields ought to be more than adequate to protect the hull and FSD against further damage from the Condors until the torpedoes found their targets and we were able to flee into witchspace. “Gamma ray burst detected. Torpedo three detonation confirmed.”
I glanced at the video feed on the HUD. “Did we get it?”
“Stand by. Frame shift signature detected.” ASTRA warned.
I looked back up through the canopy. “Oh, fuck.”
Distracted by the video feed for just a second, I hadn't seen the arrival of the incoming ship. It was the Federal Corvette that had buzzed our cover asteroid a few hours earlier, ten kilometres directly in front of my vessel, deploying weapon hardpoints and two of it's own Condor fighters. With my own ship at a relative velocity of nearly three kilometres per second, there was barely any time to react. Twin plasma accelerator blasts from the huge dorsal hardpoints on the Corvette lanced across space, the white-purple spheres stripping away my Clipper's shield envelope in a heartbeat. The Condors had barely cleared their fighter bays on the Corvette before they opened fire, their multi-cannons strafing down the full length of my ship. I just managed to wrestle the Clipper under the belly of the Corvette to avoid a collision, flashing past the larger vessel and back out of weapons range in a second and a half.
“Canopy compromised. Damage critical.” ASTRA's voice hissed distantly in my ear. It took me a couple of seconds to orient myself and realise what had happened. It was almost impossible to breathe, and when I looked down, I understood why. It also explained why I could vaguely hear Karina screaming in panic and distress. I coughed, bending over forwards in my seat, metallic-tasting liquid bubbling in the back of my mouth and throat.
“Master! Master!” Karina shrieked, leaning over the console to try and pull me upright.
I glanced behind me, over my shoulder and saw the blood splattered across the rear bulkhead of the flight deck. I had been hit by a multi-cannon round that had pierced the canopy, halfway down my right hand side ribcage, leaving a 30 millimetre hole in the front of my suit that was already congealing with blood, clotting rapidly in the vacuum that now filled the bridge, the air having escaped through the hole in the canopy. The sabot had passed clean through me and my flight seat, taking most of my right lung with it. I was somewhat bewildered to find that the wound didn't hurt, but I felt increasingly giddy from the internal bleeding. I could feel ruptured blood vessels leaking inside me. “Karina... Get out. Get out of here.”
“Master, no!” Karina screamed again, even as I pushed her hands away from me with the last of my strength.
“Karina, go. Get the ship out... Frame shi-” I prompted her again, my consciousness ebbing away. I tried to stay awake, wanting to be sure that she had obeyed my last instruction, but the last thing I saw was her still leaning over towards me as my senses were cloaked in darkness.