USFS Fennec (KKG-214), outbound from planet Niflheim, Auckland C system, GY 46.4

“Formation maneuver complete, sir,” announced Navigator's Mate Second Class Dan Sanders. He slackened his grip on the attitude control sticks, glad that the tricky maneuver was over with. Maneuvering a warship - even one as nimble as a Predator-class corvette – into close formation with a big, lumbering civilian transport ship while both were moving well in excess of ten kilometers per second, was no mean feat.

“Very well,” the officer of the deck replied. “Formation control to automatic.”

“Control to automatic, helm aye.” Sanders nudged the RCS control one last time, killing the last centimeter per second of relative velocity, then flipped the system into autopilot. On automatic, the system would do its level best to keep Fennec in the same position relative to whatever points of reference the helm specified. Al the moment it was set to keep them ten kilometers above and just slightly ahead of the big transport Buffalo Soldier, and centered between her two sister ships, Mongoose and Badger. “Course confirmed for half-gravity brachistochrone. Fifteen seconds to main engine light-off.”

Lieutenant Kara O'Riordan, Fennec's officer of the deck, took a deep breath as the engines ignited, accelerating the little ship at just under five meters per second per second, and pondered their situation. In a newly-colonized system like Auckland, three corvettes just to escort a routine supply and passenger ship would normally be considered overkill. Lately, though, a few supply runs had just vanished – failing to arrive, with no signals received. The loss of supplies had seriously hampered the new colony down on the planet, the shipping companies were hopping mad over the loss of material, and the Colony Commission was not at all happy about the deaths of six dozen good people. Given that, it only made sense to provide guards. And since Fennec and her sisters were the only warships in the system, they got the nod.

Not that it was the optimal choice, of course. A raider that could smoke a supply ship fast enough to keep them from getting a distress call out would be a proper warship – probably at least a frigate – not just some low-rent freebooter pinnace. Something like that merited at least a frigate for escort. Of course, if you didn't have any frigates in-system because the brass were skinflints, then corvettes would have to do. It was an uneasy compromise.

Of course, O'Riordan reflected, everything about a corvette is an uneasy compromise. When you try to jam most of the capability of a frigate into a hull barely larger than an in-system cutter, for only slightly more than the cost of such a cutter, something had to give somewhere. Compared to a typical frigate, a corvette like Fennec had less than half the missile capacity, thinner armor, less than half as many mass drivers and laser cannons, and dead-even maneuverability. There wasn't even room for an internal centrifuge like the cutters had – Fennec only had gravity because she was under thrust. In Kara's opinion, that was just too many trade-offs: in a pitched battle, a frigate could at least take care of itself. Fennec would be dead meat.

She briefly wondered just whose Pepsi she'd peed in to get saddled with this assignment, anyway. She was supposed to be assigned as the main propulsion assistant on USFS Richmond, one of those new Stockholm-class heavy cruisers. If all the rumors were true, there was a ship that could take care of itself in a scrap. The war-games showed they could even take on their Farkon or Khazara equivalents on roughly even footing. But no, she had to get assigned to some low-rent corvette out in the middle of some barely-colonized system that USF had to make a devil's deal with the Solar Consortium just to get into, guarding an empty transport from pirates that may or may not even exist.

Bloody typical, she thought. Shaking her head, she slouched down into the acceleration couch. It was going to be a boring watch.

Back on watch again, two days later, Lieutenant O'Riordan glanced around Fennec's cramped combat information center. The captain's chair in the back was empty, and the three other members of her watch team sat hunched over at their consoles, the displays and work lights creating little pools of light in the blue gloom. They were almost to their destination. She would be glad to get rid of the slow, lumbering transport that they'd been stuck with.

“Time to zero rel-v?” she asked, buckling the free-fall harness as she did so. When the ship hit zero velocity relative to the gate, they'd cut engines; with no thrust, there'd be no gravity either, and the last thing she wanted was to end up floating lamely in midair when that happened.

Sanders eyed his display carefully, one finger poised above the emergency engine kill switch. “T minus two minutes to main engine cutout, Lieutenant.”

“Very well,” she replied.

Just then, the door swung open and Lieutenant Commander Garcia, Fennec's commanding officer, strode in.

“Captain in combat!” O'Riordan announced.

He dismissed the formality with a wave. “At ease, people. I just thought I'd come on down before we went to free fall again.”

He walked over and buckled himself into his reserved acceleration couch, positioned slightly above and behind all the other CIC watch stations.

“OOD, do we have comms with Buffalo Soldier and gate control?” he asked.

“Yes sir,” she replied, and leaned over to put the communication channel on speaker.

Garcia picked up the radio phone. “Buffalo Soldier, Fennec actual.”

“This is Buffalo Soldier, go ahead” a voice came back.

“We are disengaging formation. Best of luck to you, Buffalo Soldier, you guys really keep us going out here!”

There was a slight chuckle from the other end of the link. “May the stellar winds be at your back, Fennec. We'll say hi to the folks back home for you, if you'll send my regards to Jenny back on the station.”

“Sure thing. Fennec out,” Garcia said. “Gate control, escort control. We are breaking away now.”

“Roger, escort control” said a slightly bored-sounding voice on the other end. “We confirm your course. Buffalo Soldier, we are standing by for jumpgate activation. Synchronize automatic docking systems.”

Garcia set down the phone. “Helm, terminate brachistochrone and put us in a Lissajous orbit around the Lagrange point.”

Sanders punched in a rapid series of commands on his console. “Aye, captain. Cutting forward thrust now and initiating orbital maneuver.” He hit the “all stations” button, dialing his console into the general announcing system. “All hands stand by for free fall. Brace for acceleration while conducting orbital insertion.”

Sanders keyed in the last few commands, the keys clicking loudly. He spared a glance over at his sensor repeater and momentarily went wide-eyed. “Radar, helm – did you see that just now?”

Over at the radar console, Operations Specialist First Class Valentino scanned his display. “Yeah, there was something there, for just a second. Looks like it disappeared back behind the brown... No, wait...” He hesitated just a moment longer before confirming it. “Conn, radar, new contact bearing zero-two-zero mark four six, range two five hundred megameters, designate bogey-two-seven-one-niner.”

“New contact, bogey-2719, conn aye,” O'Riordan responded. She turned to the captain. “This is unexpected.”

Garcia furrowed his brow. “Es verdad... Check in with Mongoose and Badger, see if anyone got eyes on it.”

Valentino reached for the phone, but as he did, four more blips appeared on his radar scope, all coming around the curve of the brown dwarf. He punched in a tight-beam scan, getting a closer look at them. “Oh, damn... Captain, I've got four more contacts, three small and one large. Wait... Engine flares! Contacts are accelerating.”

“Warn Buffalo Soldier!” Garcia commanded. “I'll bet these are the pirates. Anything in the database?”

Valentino ran through the search. “No sir, unknown designs, no match for drive signatures either.”

“Alright then, keep tracking them,” Garcia said. “OOD, set condition 2SQ.”

Before O'Riordan had a chance to react, Valentino piped up from the radar console. “Fire control radar, sir, we're being painted. Wait, they're firing, I show two, no, four vampires inbound!”

The captain sat bolt-upright. “Sound general quarters!” he shouted. “Activate defense grid!”

“Activate defense grid, weapons aye,” responded Crewman Ivan Dmitriev. He nervously strapped himself tighter into his couch as he keyed in the commands; this was his first real combat situation.

O'Riordan hit the alarm, setting a klaxon squawking throughout the ship. She keyed up the shipwide announcing system, or 1MC as spacers knew it. “General quarters, general quarters, all hands man action stations! Stand clear of all airtight fittings while setting material condition Zulu!” She punched a key on the remote damage control panel, closing the ship's airtight interior fittings. On the display, red hatches winked green, one after the other, as they sealed themselves against a possible pressure loss.

“Weapons status?” Garcia inquired.

CN Dmitriev was already halfway through the full weapon power-up sequence, punching in commands rapidly. “Lasers coming on line, sir. Main mass drivers show kinetic rounds loaded, powering up. CIWS on line and tracking inbound. Missile outer doors open, waiting for ready rounds to preheat, sir!”

“Very well, Crewman.” Garcia rubbed his chin pensively. “Time to impact?”

“Inbound missiles have turned toward Buffalo Soldier, sir. Estimate two minutes to impact as present acceleration,” Valentino said.

Garcia shook his head. This was getting ugly quickly. “Helm, put us between Buffalo Soldier and those missiles, three gravity burn. Weapons, pop chaff, distraction pattern. Set mass drivers for long-range dispersion fire and load VT-Frag! Get those bandits out of my sky.”

O'Riordan stabbed at a few buttons on her console. “Engagement order acknowledged, sir. Weapons, match orders and execute. Batteries release mass driver, all hostile tracks!”

Sanders and Dmitriev both went into rapid but measured action, carrying out their orders with efficiency. The engines lit off, slamming the crew back into their acceleration couches as the little ship leaped forward, putting itself between the vulnerable supply ship and the inbound missiles, her chaff launchers popping out a spread of decoys as she went. A moment later, violent vibrations ran through the frame as the two 60mm mass driver cannons opened up, sending out four rounds per second each. The glowing projectiles streaked out, bursting into cones of white-hot shrapnel. Two missiles came apart under the bombardment, but the remaining two wavered briefly then screamed in, their infrared homing heads locked onto Fennec's glowing radiators.

“Missiles have locked on us, sir!” Valentino exclaimed. “Hostiles have launched more missiles. Showing inbound rounds targeted on Buffalo Soldier, Mongoose, Badger and us!”

CIWS to point defense automatic! Batteries release laser!” Garcia ordered. “How long until Buffalo Soldier jumps?”

“Ten minutes to gate activation, sir,” O'Riordan replied.

“We don't have ten minutes,” Valentino shot back. “I've got a good look at that big bandit – she's a destroyer or a light cruiser, and she's just sped up, torching five gees now.”

“Hells,” Garcia swore. For the first time this was starting to look like a real problem. “Let's buy them some time, shall we? Weapons, give me Mark 64 torpedoes, all tubes. OOD, relay attack orders to Mongoose and Badger, prepare for three-axis torpedo strike against enemy DD.”

It was a gutsy move, pulling a three-axis strike without cover, but if it worked the enemy ship would be hard-pressed to survive it. The problem would be keeping the torps alive long enough to matter. Torpedoes could carry a lot of delta-v, but their engines were optimized for specific impulse, not thrust. If the corvettes were too far away when they launched their torpedoes, the destroyer could easily knock them all down with laser fire and anti-missile missiles – but if they waited too long, they'd be ripped apart by the very same lasers. They were already too close for a long-range volley – the torpedoes wouldn't have enough time to accelerate up to a speed that would make them hard targets – and they weren't carrying the new SSM-54 Lance missiles that were designed for exactly this kind of scenario.

Sucks to be us, then, Kara thought as she picked up the phone to relay the attack orders. When the other two ships acknowledged their orders, Kara put down the phone and picked up the 1MC. “Attention all hands, buckle in, it's going to get bumpy.” Hopefully bumpy is all it gets, she added silently.

Captain Garcia's voice broke her from her reverie. “Status on those inbound missiles?”

Valentino looked over his panel. “CIWS and lasers nailed all vampires inbound on us and Buffalo Soldier. Still show six vamps inbound on Mongoose, sir!”

Dmitriev looked up from his panel, which was monitoring not only Fennec's weapons, but those of the other ships. “Captain, Mongoose is reporting a casualty on her main laser battery, and her CIWS has expended all missiles!”

“Damn it. Mass drivers, defensive barrage, take down those missiles! Lasers, snipe 'em!”

Fennec swung her mass driver and laser turrets to cover the beleaguered Mongoose and cut loose. Glowing bolts streaked out from the 60mm turrets, exploding into cones of fragments in the path of the missiles, but with their tremendous speed – crossing Fennec's bow at well over two hundred kilometers per second – the mass driver turrets just couldn't track fast enough. The lasers lashed out next, the pulses of coherent ultraviolet photons invisible in the vacuum of space until they met their target. A bloom of brightly glowing vapor erupted where the pulse train intersected the inbound missile, cracks radiating down the missile housing as the shock of a dozen vapor explosions shattered it. The propellant tank of the first missile broke apart, its neutron-absorbing interior no longer keeping the fissile saltwater below critical mass and the missile vanished in the incandescent flame of an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. By then Fennec's laser had already struck the second missile in the volley and was moving on to the third.

The remaining missiles continued to streak in, accelerating all the while, even as the first three vanished in nuclear fire. Mongoose's dorsal CIWS turret snapped around to face the missiles, spraying out two hundred ten-millimeter tungsten slugs per second. The lead missile caught the volley dead-on and broke apart with such rapidity that its propellant didn't even have time to react, and the CIWS rotated to engage the next.

But, it was too little, too late. The remaining two missiles lined up behind one another and the lead round dropped half a dozen small rods. None of the corvettes had time to respond to this new threat before the missile vanished in a blindingly intense flash of light and radiation, the wave of X-rays flashing out to vaporize the rods. An instant before the rods vaporized, though, the flood of photons excited a cascade of further X-rays, all in lock-step, and all aimed directly at the hapless Mongoose.

The X-ray lasers were undaunted by the corvette's meager defense fields. Even spread to four times their width, the beams were intense enough to blast through tungsten armor in an instant, drilling all the way through the ship, through their propellant tanks and mass driver magazines. The vapor from the stricken ship's armor and hull became a shock wave of plasma, spreading outward through the vulnerable inside of the vessel, breaching airtight fittings, rupturing bulkheads and even blowing out hull panels. Aboard Fennec, Valentino watched the battle through his camera repeater, staring in horror as the entire port side of Mongoose came apart, pieces of white-hot glowing metal and shapes that could only be bodies spilling out into vacuum.

Fennec continued firing frantically at the last missile, eventually managing to shear off its engine bell with a laser shot, but by now the missile was so close and moving so fast that nothing could stop it. It streaked into the still-glowing port side of the stricken corvette and initiated, and the entire ship disappeared in a brilliant flash.

At his console, Valentino let out a cry of anguish. “Mongoose is gone, sir.”

“Nothing left?” Garcia queried, but he knew the answer. The flash, even on camera, had lit up the entire space.

“Direct nuclear hit, sir, six megatons” Valentino replied, obviously shaken. “Nothing left but ions.”

“Then we press the attack. Weapons, launch first torpedo wave now. Navigation, come around for anvil strike! Sensors, how's Badger holding up?” Garcia was beginning to get seriously worried now, but he was trying not to show it to the crew. A captain's job required calm under fire, and he would be damned if he was going to fail at that.

The little ship suddenly bucked and surged forward, the effect of twenty thousand kilograms of torpedoes being launched while she was under thrust. The computer automatically compensated for changes in the ship's mass, but while it was fast, it wasn't instantaneous. “Torpedoes away, all units running hot, straight and normal, torching one point seven gravities! T minus two zero seconds to launcher reload!” Dmitriev reported.

Meanwhile, Valentino monitored the rest of the battle. On his radar scope, two red dots turned orange and expanded, enemy fighters shattering under the pounding of Badger's laser cannon, but then he saw the distinctive flare of a nuclear detonation. “They've detonated another laser warhead! Buffalo Soldier's hit!”

“How bad?” O'Riordan asked.

“She's hulled starboard side, from frame 258 back to 451, one rocket off line and she's leaking air and propellant. Looks bad but their engineers say they can still make the gate. They've cut in their LOX afterburner, two minutes to jump,” Valentino answered.

“Roger. Navigation, confirm torpedo attack angle,” O'Riordan said.

“Attack vector confirmed, weapons show green,” Sanders said.

“Hold vector,” Garcia commanded. He paused a moment, nervous. “Hold it... Hold it... Fire!”

Dmitriev hit a button and the ship bucked again, another four torpedoes spurring away. On the tactical display, another eight rounds from Badger could be seen, converging on the destroyer from the other side. Sixteen massive torpedoes, each bearing a four hundred kiloton nuclear shaped charge, were bearing down on the enemy ship. Unfortunately, a destroyer was much more equipped to handle such an attack than a corvette.

The destroyer turned ninety degrees to the incoming volleys, essentially standing on its tail, and relit its engines, torching straight up relative to where it had been. At the same time, octagonal panels on its sides flashed yellow and three torpedoes exploded, split end-to-end by the laser pulse trains. The other torpedoes began jinking evasively, but it wasn't enough – the enemy ship's lasers, firing as they did from phased arrays, could re-orient their fire much faster than the torpedoes could jink. Over and over again the lasers fired until the phased-array panels glowed red from heat. As the torpedoes grew closer, particle beam turrets opened fire, destroying still more of the torps.

Garcia watched as round after round of their perfectly-executed volley disappeared, blown apart by the destroyer's point defenses. With the last of the fighters gone, Fennec and Badger focused their laser fire on the enemy ship, blasting small chunks out of its armor with each hit, but it was barely making a difference, and they were rapidly approaching overheat, anyway. He saw an indicator switch from red to green on Dmitriev's panel, indicating the torpedo tubes were reloaded and ready to send their last rounds on their way. He noticed the young crewman looking over his shoulder, waiting for permission to fire. Garcia nodded fiercely, and Dmitriev hit the firing key again. For a third time the ship shook, and four more torpedoes streaked out.

With her phased-array lasers overheated, the destroyer's defenses slackened. Her particle beams nailed four more of the inbound, point-defense missiles skagged three more, but the last one struck a glancing blow. Despite the bad angle, the torpedo's warhead still initiated and a spear of ultra-hot plasma lanced forward, piercing the destroyer's armor just aft of the ship's nose. The blast blew out the other side as a diffuse cloud of sparkling vapor, but it had done its damage, gutting most of the forward segment.

“Direct hit, sir!” Dmitriev exclaimed, jubilant. “She's still there, but hurt pretty bad.”

Just then, Valentino saw the blip representing Buffalo Soldier wink out in the characteristic way that indicated a faster-than-light jump. “Buffalo Soldier is clear, sir!”

Garcia let out the breath he'd been holding. “What about that DD?”

“She's... Shit! Missiles!”

“How many?” Garcia asked, barely keeping his voice steady. Fennec's lasers were overheated, her CIWS mounts were out of missiles and low on slugs, and the mass drivers weren't good enough at close range – not without the kind of electromagnetic slip rings the new frigates had, and corvettes like Fennec rather pointedly did not. If it was a large volley, they'd be finished.

“Five, sir, and they all look like laser heads,” Valentino replied, his voice sinking for the first time since battle was joined. “And six more on Badger.”

“Hard about, maximum burn!” the captain barked. “Full decoy spread, evasive action!”

“Aye sir, evasive, balls to the wall!” Sanders acknowledged. “Popping chaff!”

Fennec came about and lit off her engines, then cut in both the deuterium-fusion and LOX chemical afterburners, accelerating at five times earth gravity. That level of acceleration would cause her crew to black out after a few seconds if they remained seated. Luckily, within a second, the acceleration couches tilted backward to better accommodate the strong g-forces, and the little ship continued on, trying to outdistance the pursuing missiles. It wasn't enough, though. Fennec was making an impressive five gees, but the missiles were torching eleven, and catching up rapidly. The CIWS turrets snapped around too fast for a human eye to follow and began spewing out swarms of tungsten pellets, detonating two of the missiles. Two more turned away and went after the spread of decoys, but the last streaked in.

With remarkable speed, considering the strain the crew was under, Sanders spun Fennec on her long axis an instant before the missile initiated. With the change of aspect, the ship was suddenly a much narrower target, and only one of the six X-ray laser beams struck. That one beam cut through the base of the port mass driver turret and skewered through the weapon nacelle. Chunks of glowing metal blew out the other side, slamming into the propellant tank. Billowing white clouds of rapidly-condensing hydrogen spewed out into space, tumbling the little corvette on two axes as her port main engine winked out. Sanders fought against the spin, using the ship's momentum gyros and vernier thrusters to stabilize her flight. After several sickening seconds, the ship finally leveled off and cut thrust.

“That's a bad one, sir!” O'Riordan announced, looking at her damage control readouts. “We've lost CIWS control and the port mass driver, several RCS propellant lines are cut, we're hulled and venting propellant. The port tank's a write-off, in fact. I'm trying to shunt as much as I can into the starboard tanks but the pumps are shot to hell and leaking. Those fragments tore up a whole hell of a lot of stuff back there, and it might be worse – dosimeters in the main space are reading seven grays for most of the space.”

Garcia lowered his head. X-ray laser hits tended to scatter lots of hard radiation in spaces near the beam path. He knew what that meant – anyone back there was going to be incapacitated by radiation poisoning in a few hours, and would die without very rapid medical attention. Worse, with propellant loss, they might not have enough delta-v to make it back to Niflheim quickly – or at all. Fortunately the space wasn't rendered radioactive, just irradiated. “What about the forward tank?”

O'Riordan shook her head. “We've got sixty-eight kilometers per second left in it, but the transfer conduits are shot full of holes. I've already dispatched DC crews and repair robots to the scene, but investigators are reporting serious hydrogen fires in the starboard passageway. Apparently we have even more leaks back there. If we can get those pipes patched up, we might be able to shunt some remass into the forward tank, but if we can't we're going to have to vent it to stop oxygen loss. That'd leave just the forward tank to get home.”

“That's not good. 68's enough for a Hohmann, but by the time we can get back that way the engineers will be dead, and our provisions may not hold out, depending on how much we lost.” Garcia shook his head once again. “How's Badger?”

Valentino watched the hulk of Badger twirling helplessly through space, gutted by several X-ray laser hits. Her vernier thrusters still flickered off and on, slowly re-establishing level flight, but Valentino couldn't tell if that was because her crew was still alive, or if it was just the computer trying to compensate for spin. Their data link was gone, and all the comm channels were silent. “At best, sir, they're worse off than we are. At worst, they're dead.”

Mierda,” Garcia swore. “Well, signal back to Cosmograd, call for a SAR pick-up for them. It's the most we can do for now, at least until we know if we can get home quickly enough.” He didn't have to tell them what quickly enough meant. All of them had gotten more than enough training about the dangers of radiation, and none wanted to dwell too long on the thought of the hell their shipmates would soon be going through. He was about to have the ship's nurse sent back there with some anti-emetics for the engine room crew, but by the time he thought of it, O'Riordan was already calling away the radiation casualties. “Stand down from general quarters, set condition 2DC, all lockers. Let's get those pipes patched up and see if we can't get home.”