Dying Tired


Strike Force Gull
Close orbit around Attica, Elysian Sovergenty Capital World

“Launch is clean, He-Four-Six. Looking forward to seeing you home soon.”

“Affirmative, Andreev Boss. See you on the backside.”

“Alpf-Four-Six, this is He-Four-Six. We’re in the slot. Showing all groups accounted.”

“He-Four-Six, this is Alpf. Confirm your spot.”

Managing even a small strike group was an exercise in herding cats. Intelligent and loyal cats, but cats nonetheless. When a strike was the better part of two hundred craft, the need for explicit, precision organization was paramount. With the final gunboats off their carriers and in position, confirmations rippled up from squadron leads to wing leads and finally to the strike leads. While command authority technically rested with Senior PackHunter Panfilov aboard dWS Hans Richter, once up and off their carriers the strike lead’s voice was just this side of god.

Barely.

“Gull One to all Gull elements. All units confirmed in place. Form on me and engage cruise on three, two, one… mark.”

In war, even the easiest thing is hard. And watching 184 gunboats all swing in a single synchronized turn on a single course looked like the easiest thing in the world.

————————————————————————
18 hours later…

Gull One
Strike Force Gull
Passing Gas Giant Orous
Elysium Star System

“Remind me to force the designer to try to use that bathroom in a flight suit.”

Lev Varga, callsign Gull 1 chuckled as he watched his sensor operator (SO) struggle his way back into his chair.

“That compartments roomy. Be glad you never served on a Partizan.”

“Oh, head’s even smaller on the gunship?”

Lev chuckled louder “You didn’t get one. Imagine being on thirty-six-hour ops without droptanks.”

The SO blanched, his outer membrane going a few shades paler at the thought “So how did you…”

“The suits were disposable. I’ll let you figure the rest out yourself.”

That brought a shudder in response from the SO as he settled back into his seat and scanned his receivers. His eyes lifted fractionally as he saw the ping of an incoming transmission. The Amur gunboat’s electronic systems automatically logged it, processing and decrypting the communication before reporting its contents to both Lev and the SO.

“No secrets, SO. Play it.”

The message began to play in the corner of all five crewmember’s main monitors, the audio piped over the crew intercom.

“Attention Strike Force Gull. This is Hasen Actual. Welcome to the party. We’ve been shadowing a single drive signature on course for the Scylla warp point, but we haven’t closed in to get hard IDs. Based on your current course and speed, we estimate contact in approximately six hours. In five hours we will close contact to attempt identification. Course corrections and identifications will follow on an hourly basis assuming you maintain present course. Hasen Actual out.”

Lev Varga leaned back as the message screen dissolved into the static insignia of the deWulf Corporate Navy. “Well, that settles it. Contact in six.” He reached forward, flicking open a communications channel. “Gull Two, this is Gull One. Advise the strike. Estimated contact in six hours. Final update to come one hour before that. Sound back.”

“Gull One, this is Two. Strike in six, final brief in five. Pass to the strike.”

“Affirmative, Two. One out.”

Lev turned back to his SO “And now it’s back the part we hate. Waiting.”

————————————————————————
Four hours, thirty minutes later…
dWS Hasen
Hare-Class Reconnaissance Destroyer

“Alright Sensors, time to earn our money.”

Hunter Skory considered himself lucky so far. The drop to Low Detection Mode had allowed them to slip free of the Sintillan Fleet’s potential sensor net, and they’d put enough distance from the drive shift to put themselves clear of any potential reconnaissance strike. But the ugly truth was that they couldn’t see small craft anywhere near as well as full-up starships, and they’d only spot an inbound strike on final approach, or near enough to it. But he couldn’t play it safe forever. The incoming strike needed better data, and the only way to get it was to close in even closer. Close enough that even Low Detection couldn’t keep them concealed.

“Take us three points to starboard. If they stay on course and speed, we should be theoretically detectable for only thirty seconds. A minute at most.”

“And if they’ve got their sensors turned off, we might just get away with it.”

Hasen continued on her course, sensors drinking in every signal it could detect from the unknown contact. Hunter Skory watched as the distance click down. Fifty light seconds. Forty-nine. Forty-eight.

“CIC, sensors. We are approaching estimated detection values for the contact. Contact is starting to diffuse into point sources, but nothing confirmed.”

The challenge was how to maneuver after the contact was resolved. They couldn’t just close in; that would still leave them detected. Theoretically. Running orthogonally would put the most distance, but it was also the most obvious. They’d have minutes, perhaps, to put enough distance from where they had been detected in order to try and get out of sensor range of any incoming small craft.

Forty-six. Forty-five light seconds.

“Standby engines…”

“CIC, Sensors. We are now in theoretical detection range of the hostile contact.”

Skory exhaled. “Engines ahead full! Sensors, tell me what you see.”

Hasen leapt forward as her drives came to full power, her signature radiating as bright as a star to anyone who could see.

“CIC, Sensors” the excitement in the voice sang out like a ringing bell “Confirmed contacts! I read ten, repeat ten contacts! Two dreadnoughts, six battleships, two battlecruisers, and one frigate. Running emissions through the warbook…”

“Sir-”  Junior Hunter Godeke’s voice was impassive “Sir, our drives are at full power. They can detect us.”

“CIC, Sensors. Warbook has tentative IDs on some contacts. We’re showing five Hydra-class battleships, two Mars-class battlecruisers, one Jupiter-class dreadnought. One dreadnought and the frigate are unknown.”

“Hunter Skory!”

“Breaker, alright damn you! Engines, come left zero-tac-two-seven-zero”

“CIC, Sensors. We are outside theoretical detection-“

“Engines, secure for low detection. New course, right zero-tac-zero-nine-zero. Communications, transmit everything to the strike group’s estimated location, then transmit to fleet flag.”

————————————————————————
ESW Screaming Vengeance
Elysian Imperial Strike Force

On course for the Scylla Warp Point, Elysian Sovergenty Capital World

“What do you mean it vanished?”

“Well, we had a phantom contact on our starboard flank, right on the edge of detection, about forty-five light seconds out. Then it lit up a full power drive field, altered course directly away from us, and then disappeared again.

Eyrie Commander Peres stifled his urge to grab his flag commander and shake him to bits. They’d detected a contact. A ship. And their first reaction was to wonder about it? His head twisted to the side, smothering the snarl but unable to conceal the ripple in his crest.

“Sir?”

His beak gritted hard before he began to speak. Slowly, enunciating every word like one did to a misbehaving child.

“And. You didn’t think. To Confirm?! The Sovereignty doesn’t HAVE destroyers! Especially not ones in that displacement range. But you know who does? The pups that are Bombing our Homeworld! If you weren’t…” The words melted into a single feral snarl reminiscent of past eons before civilization when the Elysians had merely been apex predators.

Peres turned to the strike commander “Get your patrol gunboats out there. Sweep the area where you last had a contact, then fan out. A single destroyer shouldn’t be able to wipe out a whole squadron. Once you’ve located it, blow it to scrap.”

“Do you think it was out here to find us?”

“No you brain-clipped dud, they’re just out on a pleasure cruise and want to give us all treats for having been good little ships! If it’s a deWulf ship, then they know we’re here.” Peres exhaled again; the stress finally having vented free. “And that means their fleet knows that we’re here. Little good it will do them. We’ll be through the jump point and in Scylla before they can do a thing about us. Still…”

The strike commander cut into the conversation “Gunboats are headed to last contact. Recommend we start cycling some of our craft to launch stations.”

“Thank you, Rook Commander. Yes, do it. We’re only six hours from the warp point; let’s make sure we get there in one piece.”

The dour strike commander nodded in agreement. “They aren’t perfect against engaging other gunboats, but we’ll make do.”

————————————————————————
dWS Hasen
Hare-Class Reconnaissance Destroyer

“CIC, Sensors. We have a new sensor contact breaking away from Elysians. High speed, headed for our estimated last contact point.”

Hunter Skory had no illusions about what it could be “Gunboats.”

“Sensors concur. Speed matches the profile for armed gunboat strike. At our range we wouldn’t have spotted them on launch. Now that they’ve broken away, we can track their signature.”

The CIC crew watched in silence as the contact moved in closer still. It seemed to pause, warbling as it sat where they had broken away. After a few long moments, the same blip began moving again.

Directly at Hasen.

“CIC, Sensors. They must’ve caught our scent. They’re on a direct course for us. They’ll definitely have us in one minute, two at most.”

“Recommend we go to full power on the drives and power our shields, Sir. Won’t be much, but it’s better than just crawling along.” Junior Hunter Godeke gritted his teeth as he continued. “They already know we’re here. Might as well charge them full price.”

The contact closed in further, soon resolving into nine gunboat squadrons. Each of them was just as deadly as the ones the deWulf had used hours before, but this time the target was a reconnaissance destroyer, not a planet. There was no hurricane of defenses, only a pair of point defence guns that ran out and aimed dead aft as Hasen ran for her life.

“Gunnery, try to damage the gunboats; we can’t do a thing about their attack, but every gunboat we damage might matter a little farther down the road.”

“CIC, Gunnery. We copy that. Will do what we can, sir.”

Skory looked back reconnaissance at the comm station “Start appending the Omega drone with our combat data. Full rotating data dump.” He paused a moment before looking at his own comm terminal. “Prepare to transmit one final report from my combat station.” He walked to his command chair, locking himself in before bringing up the communications interface. In the background sensors and helm and gunnery all called out reports as the strike bore down on his ship. A Hunter fought his ship till there was no chance, true. But a scout Hunter had an overriding duty beyond that.

To: deWulf Task Force One, from Hunter Skory, dWS Hasen. We have identified enemy Elysian ships, but we have been spotted in turn. We estimate nine enemy gunboat squadrons are closing in. If that's their current CAP, then according to their doctrine they have between thirty and forty gunboat squadrons altogether. If it's the higher number, then one of their unknown ships is another carrier, probably the unknown dreadnought class.

Markus, we can't stop this many gunboats. But we'll make them pay as much as we can for the pleasure, breaker take them."

dWS Hasen clear.

Get the message out.

Hasen rolled as the strike closed to point blank range, her two guns reaching out and damaging the reconnaissance lead gunboat. But it was a symbolic gesture at best. Reminiscent of the Elysian’s first use of gunboats in combat, the gunboats lined up, each delivering their own strike in turn. A single enhanced decoy missile popped off of Hasen’s external racks, but it stopped a bare handful of missiles that flushed off the Elysian’s own rails.

Hasen disappeared in a single blinding light as her main fusion plant ruptured, sending dead wreckage spiraling into the void.

————————————————————————
Gull One
Strike Force Gull

“Gull Two to Gull One. We’re five minutes out from estimated contact.”

“Understood Gull Two.” Varga cycled his own transmitter to an all-craft link.

“Attention all Gulls. This is Gull One. We are five out from our point of contact. Hasen bled for this information, so let’s bleed them back. Engagement plan is Che-5. One volley, then hard pull and Hassen’s evac. Whatever we don’t get today, we’ll get tomorrow. All Gulls, ping back acknowledge.”

The commlink went quiet as Varga waited for the responses to flow back. His EW officer listened as the rest of the strike pinged back acknowledgement before reporting “All groups report ready. Formation has slotted into Che-5. Strike ready.”

It only took a few minutes for the EW officer to say the words that everyone had been expecting.

“We are now 45 light seconds out. Estimate four minutes to contact.”

————————————————————————
ESW Screaming Vengeance
Elysian Imperial Strike Force

“Another contact? Where did it come from?”

“Unknown! Current course suggests from the Scylla warp point.”

Peres shuddered. Had the deWulf trapped him? Was there another fleet in front of him, blocking his line of advance? ‘I can roll over them, but if they do enough damage to slow me down, then they’ll have done everything they needed to.‘ But he was committed now.

“What kind of contact?”

“Unknown. At this range it’s just a single point source. CIC is trying to clean it up, but…”

One thing that surprised Peres was the improvement in his flag commander. Amazing what a little public humiliation can accomplish. He began to open his mouth to ‘suggest’ an order, but his commander cut him of before he had a chance to speak.

“Task the escort gunboats to investigate the contact. Strike commander, get ready for launch. If he’s another scout, the escorts can handle him. If not…”

The strike commander looked to Peres, who merely nodded in agreement. His flag commander was finally stretching his wings; this was no time to clip them.

————————————————————————
Gull One
Strike Force Gull

“Gull Two to Gull One. We have one contact ahead. Closing in on a reciprocal course.”

Varga looked at the data plot in front of him, his own turn to grimace.

“No additional contacts detected. Estimated one minute to primary contact.”

“Gull One to all Gulls. Possible single contact ahead. I am evaluating this as a reconnaissance probe to ID us. Engage defensively if needed, but remember our primary target. Gull One out.”

————————————————————————
ESW Screaming Vengeance
Elysian Imperial Strike Force

Peres was leaning over the edge of the strategic holotable that was part of his command suite. Both his flag and strike commanders were watching as the Elysian gunboats pushed out towards the unknown contact.

“Still showing as a single contact, flag. Estimate thirty seconds till we have a lock.”

The trio of Elysians knew that the distance imposed a thirty second time lag for the communications. One of their first space commanders had commented that the three worst things to do in space combat were to react too early, react too early, and react too early. Which only made the waiting worse.

“Flag, this is Coros One! We have positive ID. Identifying multiple hostile gunboats, estimate One Eight Four inbound! Repeat, One Eight Four! We are attempting to break-“

The commlink hissed for the merest moment before going silent.

The strike commander was already on his own comm “All carriers, full launch. Repeat, immediate full launch.”

————————————————————————
Gull One
Strike Force Gull

“Gull One, Gull Forty. One hostile squadron crippled. Breaking to engage.”

“Understood Forty.”

Varga’s EW officer was staring at his own sensor screen willing it to light up with the telltale indications of positive target identification. At the head of the formation, he would be the first to see what they were flying into. He didn’t have to wait much longer.

“Contact Contact Contact! Enemy ships at Three-Five-Eight tac Zero-One-Zero. Hull count matches strike.” The EW officer cycled onto Varga’s own commlink, sending his first message to the rest of the strike along with his own sensor data. “All Gulls, Strike Confirmed. Targeting on the downlink. Say again, All Gulls, Strike Confirmed.”

With those words, the strike wave melted apart into six separate formations, each focused on one of the last carriers of the Elysian Sovereignty, with a single formation in reserve. Each formation was six squadrons, 24 gunboats arrayed in a claw formation. While the formation sacrificed maneuverability, not only did it provide overlapping fields of defensive fire, it also allowed for large numbers of gunboats to concentrate their anti-shipping fire in a single cone.  Originally an Elysian formation, deWulf naval planners had cheerfully stole it for their own doctrine, recognizing its immediate value.

Varga lead his claw in on the ship designated Che-5, the trailing Scylla-class carrier. An austere design, the Scylla sacrificed everything for maximum strike volume and high speed. It lacked defensive ECM, or even point defense mounts. With the rest of his strike riding on his heels, his targeting sensors picked up more Elysian gunboats launching from the Scylla’s twin launch decks.

“Breaker damn them” he growled as more and more gunboats launched clear and formed up. It was clear this was no organized strike; the carriers were getting their gunboats out as quickly as they could, sending them in waves as they cleared the tubes and reoriented towards the hostile strike. It couldn’t be the kind of crippling strike that had been envisioned, but it would be good enough. At least the escort formation had collapsed; Elysian ships were notoriously light on point defense, and they depended on tight formations to put up any kind of notable resistance.

“Forty’s got them running!”

Varga pulled his eyes out of his tunnel vision as the gunner crowed in triumph. It wasn’t hard to see why. The gunboats that had intercepted the initial combat patrol clearly had tasted blood, and a steady stream of damaged gunboats was running back to the carriers. Right across the flight path of the entire strike. His mind was already working out the engagement angle as his gunner laid a long burst into the first gunboat formation that flew across their path. The rest of the formation followed suit, ripping the lone gunboat apart.

Bitterly, Varga realized another truth. Even if he didn’t cripple the carriers, this engagement would likely tear the heart out of the Elysian strike group. And without them, the carriers were nothing more than expensive barges. Threat warnings were pinging as the first wave of hastily launched gunboats were steadying down for their attack runs. Behind him what had started as an organized strike was quickly melting into a chaotic melee, gunboats swinging in to dive on each other as the two Elysian battlecruisers and their dreadnought command ship waded into the middle.

His console pinged as his SO told him what he already realized. The Elysian carriers were out of range, and running hard enough that they’d be staying out of range. Only his strike group had something that resembled a shot. But one damaged carrier wasn’t going to cut it. A tentacle clicked his comm to an all-gunboats link: “Gull One to all flights; engage hostile gunboats and enemy warships. Let the carriers run.”

It was a violation of mission goals. But it was better than dying for nothing.

Reefing his gunboat into a tight turn, the rest of his strike group followed perfectly, pivoting in sequence to emerge from the 180-degree course change in exactly the same formation and turning on the roiling chain of combat behind them. Behind them had been Elysian gunboats, then deWulf gunboats, and the three Elysian warships in one massive brawl. Now it was all laid out in a trail almost three light seconds long.

“Gull One to Strike One, copy lead.” Varga set his pip on the nearest Elysian Battlecruiser. Behind him the SO was already passing along targeting data to the other gulls in his strike group. Varga saw a blip on his display that indicated the rest of the strike was ready.

“Execute.”

Gull One rolled to the right, pivoting around a point just off the right wing. As she did her wing pylons flashed as multiple short-range torpedoes leapt off their racks, drives lighting up as soon as they were clear. Around Gull One thirty-five other gunboats were doing the same in a single coordinated motion that would have made a ballet composer weep with emotion. At that range the battlecruiser barely had a second to respond as the hurricane of torpedoes slammed into her nose. Shields flared and died, and armor plate crumpled. The staggered launch spread the torpedoes over a bare five seconds, and that meant that instead of spending themselves entirely on shields and hull the following torpedoes bit deep. A hurricane of fire roiled deep in the hull, a wave of destruction that washed away crew and composite both. The battlecruiser’s crewed citadel shattered as the fire raved deeper still before it consumed central engineering and the rest of the battlecruiser disintegrated in a final flash of light.

Scores more gunboats exploded in the melee as the deWulf gunboats suddenly switched their targets, the Elysian gunboats discovering that they were no longer a secondary priority.

————————————————————————
ESW Screaming Vengeance
Elysian Imperial Strike Force

“We’re losing gunboats.”

Peres was watching the telltales on the side of the command holotank, showing individual craft and squadrons change in hue as they suffered under the refocused attention of the attacking small craft.

“Yes, we are” replied the strike commander “but the exchange is in our favor. We’ve lost eleven squadrons, but they’ve lost twelve. And far more of them are damaged than ours are. And we still have a reserve.”

Peres felt his headcrest lift in surprise “I thought you launched everything?”

The older Elysian smiled like only a species evolved from a carnivorous predator could. “Always keep a little in reserve, just in case the commander asks for one last effort. We’ll keep them prepped for launch, but I think we can hold them off.”

————————————————————————

Varga was in the thick of the fight now, having led the rest of his strike group in to cover an attack on the other Elysian battlecruiser by the few gunboats that still had their external ordinance. It wasn’t a textbook attack, but it was an effective enough hammer drop. His wing screaming in to the battlecruiser’s starboard, with the remnants of two wings coming in from port and ahead. And crucially, it gave its dreadnought escort more targets to deal with. Unlike almost every other Elysian ship, it actually possessed some point defense weapons, and its twin mounts were throwing out violence like it was going out of style.

Fixed with a cruel choice, the point defense systems tried in vain to defend their ally, but there simply were too many torpedoes. The strikes were uncoordinated enough that the dreadnought could engage them all separately, and that bought some safety as the battlecruiser heaved out of the firestorm bleeding atmosphere. But only some safety. Those same gunboats fired their onboard lasers, skewering the crippled ship and triggering a slow cascade of explosions as the engines came apart under the abuse.

The initiative had been sawing back and forth, either side getting the upper hand for a moment only to have it torn away. Damaged gunboats began to peel away from the combat on both sides, last survivors of entire squadrons. Some managed to break contact and escape, while others found themselves pounced by their more intact adversaries. What remained of the deWulf squadrons split their attention; damaged ones did their best to finish off Elysian squadrons, while the few intact ones coiled in behind the last Elysian capital ship, pouring energy fire into its blindspot without mercy. Slowly the dreadnought’s plate came apart, but at the expense of more deWulf gunboats targeted and crippled by the Elysians.

————————————————————————
ESW Screaming Vengeance
Elysian Imperial Strike Force

“Exchange still in our favor?”

The strike commander looked back at Peres with a barely concealed glare.

“No. No it is not. But-” and that hungry glare came back in full “is why we have reserves.”

————————————————————————
Gull One
Strike Force Gull

“Additional gunboats detected, Sir.”

Varga made the equivalent of a groan as he heard that news. His squadrons had been pounding the Elysian dreadnought into scrap, and their efforts had been rewarded by a stream of parts and atmosphere that was spilling out behind the flailing warship. They’d been fighting the whole engagement to a draw, despite their inferior weapons. But more gunboats…

“How many?”

The SO waited as sensor data was processed, the gunboat shuddering as an Elysian force beam impacted on the hull.

“Estimate six squadrons. They just launched off the carriers. Drive profile suggests full external ordinance load.”

Six more squadrons. That was enough to tip the balance and ensure that none of the deWulf gunboats would be getting back to their bases. As it was crew berthing would be barely half full, but if they loitered, then they’d be empty instead.

“Breaker take them all. General signal, all craft are to make one final pass and withdraw. We’ve bloodied them. Let’s hope it’s enough.”

Obedient to orders, the gunboats made one more pass before breaking off, managing to finish off a few more Elysian gunboats, but not without their own losses. The remnants of the Elysian gunboat squadrons recognized a reprieve when they saw it, and withdrew to their own carriers to assess the damage and count their dead. They had repelled the strike, but at murderous cost.

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