Both sides watched as their small craft advanced, disappearing from their sensors into the miasma between the fleets. Farther ahead, the Elysian ships went to full combat speed to open up the range so they could change course once their gunboats completed their mission. They knew that they had brutalized their opposite number in their last engagement, and even if they had a slight numerical disadvantage, their superior Elysian weapons mix would easily crush their deWulf opponents.
Unfortunately, a slight numerical disadvantage wasn’t what they faced. In the nebulae, their gunboats could not identify small craft until they were almost upon them. And when the thirteen Elysian gunboat squadrons met their opponents, they didn’t just face fifteen deWulf gunboat squadrons, but an additional twenty-five fighter squadrons. Already facing a superior number of gunboats alone, the fighters gave the deWulf a little over a four to one advantage in small craft. Against that force disparity, there was only one possible result.
The Elysian strike died. It did not die alone; ripples of missiles and the invisible lash of force beams claimed their victims. A few Elysian gunboats managed to break through the cordon, screaming in on the target buried deep in the deWulf formation. All they found was one death traded for another, as a trio of the hated Baltic-class defense battleships ripple fired their defenses and blotted the survivors from reality.
In the end, twelve deWulf gunboat squadrons turned back to their carriers, all of them damaged. Joining them were two fighter squadrons that had also suffered from the frenzied Elysian craft. That left twenty-three fighter squadrons that redlined their drives and chased after the fleeting Elysian carriers.
ESW Screaming Vengeance
Elysian Imperial Strike Force
The Strike Commander shook his head. The nebula’s interference smothered communications almost as badly as it did sensors, and the only messages they could detect were bursts of encrypted communications, garbled by electromagnetic sleet into barely identifiable static.
“We should be seeing them on our sensors soon. They know that at least one squadron has to get back; the rest can be counted on to do their duty.”
That phrase hung in the air, its real meaning unspoken and clearly understood.
“Sensors are picking up multiple small contacts, estimate identification in two minutes”
deWulf Fighter Strike
“Alright, get into formation! Let’s spread a wide net; we don’t want them to escape.”
The deWulf fighters fell into a broad wall, each fighter barely within the sensor coverage of the ones above and below and to the sides. The broad formation put the strike at risk, but with the Elysian strike annihilated, there was little that could stop them. And try as it might, a carrier could not outrun or outturn a fighter.
“There we go! Contact triple zero mark zero one zero. Remember your assignments; get into their blind spots and stick!”
The fighters surged ahead, all of them curling in towards the fleeing carriers. They were at a run, their drives glowing hard as components were run deep into the Never Exceed bands. It wasn’t enough.
ESW Screaming Vengeance
Elysian Imperial Strike Force
“Contacts! Multiple hostile contacts! deWulf IFFs detected!”
“Many contacts! Range is ten light seconds and closing!”
“Our strike is dead, Eyrie Commander. Not hard to see how.”
“What… what do we do?” The shrill voice of the strike force’s flag captain sliced through the air. He might have found some strength, but this was more strain than he could handle. “What do we do, Eyrie Commander?”
The oncoming fighter strike provided the answer. The fighters broke apart into smaller groups, each of them firing their onboard plasma cannons into the unprotected drive emitters of the Elysian ships. The sensor frigate was the first to go, subjected to half a dozen fighter squadrons pouring fire into her unarmored hull. Her communications managed only a distorted scream as her power plant failed in an eye-watering boil.
The first carrier to die was the Saminia, a full two dozen fighters latching onto her massive blind spot. Her drive field trembled as her crew violated every safety margin, cut out every governing system in a desperate attempt to try and buy a few more moments of safety. And that was all it bought. Plasma fire ripped through her armour belt, tearing deep into empty launch bays. Saminia’s hull ripped itself apart as the engines desynchronized, drive units flying off in different directions for a racing heartbeat before exploding like fireworks.
“All Fangs, regroup. That big carrier of theirs has some teeth; Settle into her aft and remind them how Fenren hunt!”
The result was an organized slaughter as one carrier came apart after another, spilling atmosphere and structural frame in equal measure. One carrier managed to hold together, a gutted hulk instead an expanding cloud of debris. Quickly enough all that remained was Elyisan dreadnought-carrier, but her defenses had only bought her a little more time. deWulf fighters were piling up in her blind spot, sending salvo after salvo of stellar-hot plasma into gaping wounds that covered her aft hull. Exactly which fighter fired the final, killing blow was impossible to tell. The carrier came apart as internal explosions blistered out along her hull like lesions bursting through skin.
“That looks like a kill, Fang One.”
“Affirm, Fang Two. Scratch six soap bubbles.”
“And one armoured soap bubble.”
Laughter rippled across the open comm channel. Something that hadn’t been heard in months, perhaps years. The understanding that there might actually be an end to all this madness… that they had not just made it, but seen it through began to sink in.
“Yeah… that’s it? That’s…”
“Confirmed Fang One. My sensors show clear screens.”
“Negative. We can barely see ourselves in this hash. Without their IFFs there’s dammed all we can do.”
“Alright… alright, let’s get back to the den. We’ve our own to take care of. Fang Two, signal Panfilov when we’re back in range.”